Has it happened to you? Has something or someone in popular culture driven you nuts? Not the garden variety “This song is horrible, when will they stop playing it?” nuts (R.I.P. “Macarena”!), but the anaphylactic shock “This person/thing is making me irrationally angry and sick and I want him/her/it to fail fail fail” nuts? Well, it’s happened to me, twice, each time with other female writers. Want to take one guess why? No, you're right, you don't have to, you already know why -- jealousy.
The first time it happened was in 2005 when “Grey’s Anatomy” debuted and became a monster hit for ABC. I knew immediately why I was peeved -- the creator of the show, Shonda Rhimes, was having the career I wished I had. Our paths first intersected in 1998 -- I was a Vice President of Production at Twentieth Century Fox and bought a movie pitch from her a shortly before I summoned up the guts to quit my suit gig and become what I beheld -- a writer. That particular project went nowhere, but soon thereafter, Rhimes wrote the lauded HBO movie “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (which won Halle Berry a Golden Globe), the Britney Spears debut (read: debacle) “Crossroads” (the DVD commentary by Shonda and director Tamra Davis, however, revealed the creative intentions behind it were as good as the acting was bad) and “Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.” (Okay, at this point, you may be wondering, "What’s with the “Juno” poster? This is all about Lori hating on Shonda Rhimes." But truly, it’s not. I’ll get to the “Juno” of it all in a moment, promise.)
Shonda Rhimes, from the start, was an obvious talent -- her unproduced script, “When Willows Touch,” was her calling card to Hollywood and a lovely piece of writing -- so B.G. (Before “Grey’s”), her successes made me cheer her on from a distance because she deserved them. But as soon as she blew up in television -- the medium of writing where I had the most traction and she had no previous experience -- I found my eyes quickly transmuting from brown to green. Not only was she becoming the most successful black female show runner ever in terms of audience and ratings, she was doing it the way I wanted to -- without race pigeonholing her casting or her subject matter.
I was envious of her and angry with myself. I’d known Shonda all those years ago -- why hadn't I nurtured or protected that relationship? If I had, would I be riding the zeitgeist to writer heaven (awards, fat development deals, syndication), too? But these "If I'd only stayed in touch with her" moments were cracker barrel, too. I’m not a good networker, never have been and hindsight hasn’t changed that. I realized, in my saner moments, the negativity, self-directed or otherwise, was coming from my ego and had nothing personally to do with Shonda. Bottom line? I was coveting what Shonda had and, like a fiend, wanted it to be mine. I couldn’t even watch “Grey’s” the first season it aired, even though it was right up my TV alley -- soapy and sarcastic with super-verbal characters and underpinnings of good intention. Who willfully ignores such affinity for a self-created world of isolation and delusion? Say it with me, folks -- a fiend! A jealous fiend!
SHOULDA BEEN ME, NOT SHONDA!!
Fortunately Oprah helped me break through my cloud of envy -- she anointed Shonda and “Grey’s Anatomy” on an “Oprah” episode and who am I to dismiss the teachings of the great and powerful Oprah? So I started watching (and enjoying) “Grey’s Anatomy.” Good thing, too, because shortly thereafter, I saw Rhimes at a Writer’s Guild function for NAACP Image Award nominees (my husband Warren was a nominee for his work on “The Bernie Mac Show”). During a break, I approached Shonda, reintroduced myself and congratulated her on her career. Facing my demons like this not only did a world of good for my peace of mind, but as the words came from my mouth I realized they were, in fact, the truth. In my heart I wished Shonda well and knew her success was my success. Shonda thanked me and asked me what I was up to. I told her I was writing on a show called “All of Us.” She then told me to call her for lunch, implying she might be needing some writers soon.
I called her office that Monday -- our lunch became breakfast and then got rescheduled four times before her assistant called and said Shonda’s schedule was too hectic and he would call me back when time opened up. Translation? GRAB A MUFFIN AND SOME STARBUCKS BY YOURSELF, HONEY, BECAUSE IT AIN’T HAPPENING WITH SHONDA. Which, oddly, was fine by me. My conscience was clear -- I had done the right thing -- I had taken “right action,” put my ego in check and followed up on a friendly offer for a meal. That it didn’t happen was not on me and I could only wish Shonda well. (By the by, we are careening toward the “Juno” connection in the next two paragraphs -- for real this time.)
About a year after the unrequited lunch, I got a jubilant call from my agent saying the Shonda Rhimes camp wanted to meet with me. (My agent’s genuine disbelief at my ability to score such a meeting over so many other well-seasoned and better-credited writers made me chuckle -- I guess my unproduced screenplays, short-lived series and UPN/CW gigs make me a hard bag of goods to sell out there on the mean streets of Tinseltown.) She informed me Shonda was doing a spin-off of “Grey’s” called “Private Practice” and Marti Noxon (the marvelous writer/executive producer from “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer” who, coincidentally, was an old poker buddy) would be running it. The seeds of good karma were finally being sown -- Shonda hadn't forgotten me and was offering me something much better than a meal -- a chance at a career-changing job.
THE GOLDEN TICKET?
The meeting went well (at least I thought it did) with Shonda, Marti and executive producer Betsy Beers (a connection there too -- I was a writer’s assistant on “True Colors,” an early-90s Fox TV show on which her ex-hubby was a producer), but I didn’t get hired. I felt bad about it for a while but when I thought about why I was feeling bad, I realized it was my stupid ego again -- I felt bad because I thought I should feel bad, not because I really did feel bad. My life had changed so much by then -- I’d just given birth to a son who had several medical issues and the guilt of possibly leaving him for full-time work was already plaguing me. Also, my awareness about the fleeting nature of things like the popularity of television shows had expanded to the point where the part of me that was not my ego was beyond the rejection the moment my agent told me I didn’t get the job. When I looked at the situation for what it was, I saw I’d had the opportunity to spend half an hour with three seriously-talented, successful women, we weren't meant to work together at that time, and hey, guess what, there was no pen or paper shortage -- I could still write.
So after going through all of that, thinking I’d conquered jealousy and filled my professional heart with benevolent good will, imagine my shock when the same exact feelings -- more intense and more irrational this time -- surfaced around “Juno” and its writer, Diablo Cody. I didn’t even have a personal connection to this writer and I certainly (until “Juno”) didn’t want her career. I first came across the Diablo Cody phenomenon when I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about her rise from stripper to blogger to screenwriter with a super-hot project at Fox Searchlight (“Juno”), a TV project with Steven Spielberg (“The United States of Tara”) and a column in the very magazine I was reading (the only other guest writer EW employs is Steven King -- mighty high cotton for The Little Stripper That Could to shimmy in, one might -- and did -- think).
I was immediately disgusted with myself -- why was this happening again? What did Diablo ever do to me? Nothing -- except maybe get a movie project made at the company where I once had three. The script I had at Searchlight dearest to my heart, the character-based romantic comedy “The Facts About Kate,” had long been dead, but clearly my emotions around it weren’t. In development since 2000, “Kate” had gotten as close to becoming a movie as most movies that don’t become movies ever get: the awesomely awesome Forest Whitaker was attached to produce, stylish and soulful up-and-comer Kwyn Bader was hired to direct, Sanaa Lathan (of “Brown Sugar,” “Disappearing Acts,” and “Raisin In The Sun” fame) was offered the lead with start dates in mind, and Peter Rice, then President, now King of Searchlight, told me he was going to make the movie -- in front of a witness not directly under his employ, no less. But after several stops and starts “Kate” fell apart in 2004, and then the other “almost movie” I worked on for Searchlight, “Fast Girls,” was given the greenlight... twice... but went all red light in 2006. So in 2007, when I read the story of the ease of how “Juno” went from script to screen at Searchlight, what I felt went beyond jealousy, beyond envy. I wanted “Juno” to go down. I wanted Schadenfreude.
As the Rolling Stones famously put it however, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Especially when a multi-billion dollar corporation is marketing the hell out of and the public is eating up what you want to sink down the drain and become as forgotten as the Sacagawea dollar. Instead, the joke was on me -- “Juno” exploded at the box office and went on to major critical acclaim, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and, curse of all curses! -- an Oscar nomination for Diablo Cody her own damn self. Was my spite going to make me boycott the Academy Awards, my own personal Super Bowl (I haven't missed them since fifth grade when Dustin Hoffman won for "Kramer vs. Kramer" and made the funny speech where he thanked his parents for getting busy), just so I wouldn't have to see "Juno" and Diablo strut off with the gold?
Right before the Oscars aired, I had a serendipitous lunch in old Hollywood with my old friend Teddy. We got to talking about movies (we’re both writers and that fall had received more free screeners from the studios than ever -- ironic since we were on strike at the time) and Teddy asked me if I’d seen “Juno” yet. I admitted the truth to him: I couldn’t bring myself to watch “Juno” because of my irrational feelings towards it and Diablo Cody. Teddy smiled knowingly, laughed to himself, then spiritedly said, “She’s your nemesis!” I balked, saying how could Diablo Cody be my nemesis, I don’t even know her! Teddy replied that it didn’t matter if I knew her because she was an archetype -- someone who symbolized all of the negativity, hatred, jealousy, pettiness, etc. that I had within me. This bit of unexpected wisdom floored me. I couldn’t see the complete truth of it in the moment, but what I glimpsed made me realize I needed to deal with the issue right away. Teddy then mentioned a song from the musical “Avenue Q” called “Schadenfreude” he thought I should check out. He said it talked about how wishing misfortune on others actually makes the world a better place. I told him I’d get to it, but first things first. I had to watch “Juno” that night. Because I couldn’t let myself be that crazy.
Well, it turns out I was okay with letting myself be that crazy because it took me a few more days to suck it up and watch “Juno.” I knew I would feel even worse if it was bad, because then, in my mind, my petty ill will would be justified. Thankfully, “Juno” turned out to be, in my opinion, a very good movie with excellent acting, directing and characterization. Yes, a lot of the dialogue was stylized, but as I intimated when talking about “Grey’s Anatomy,” I dig that. Yes, if the tone had been off a hair it would have been a disaster. But it wasn’t and the movie really, really worked for me and I got why it connected with so many people. It was fresh, quirky, uplifting and life-affirming. And that ending duet between Ellen Page and Michael Cera of that Moldy Peaches song just killed me. So when I watched Cody walk up to accept her Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, I actually felt happy for her. She seemed genuinely pleased and humbled by the occasion and thanked her family in a way that was charming and heartfelt.
But even as I made my peace with "Juno" and Diablo, I felt uneasy. What Teddy said was still with me. Would my darker side always seek out an archetype through which to express itself? What new form of popular culture would emerge and unleash the beast within? And what if next time the material wasn’t of quality and my sense of “what’s good is good” wouldn’t allow me to quell the nastiness? Or maybe there was no way to quell it -- perhaps I should just take solace in the progress I’d made -- it took me much less time to kick my Cody jones than my Rhimes one.
And then it hit me -- perhaps this was yet another deep function of popular culture -- to reflect and reveal not only the best within us but also the worst. If we can face the weaknesses mirrored back to us via pop movies, television, music, artists, etc. instead of hide, resist or succumb to them, we can transform them into compassion and a higher consciousness -- the kind that can release us from the inherent folly of human nature. Simply put, acceptance of my untoward feelings would be the only way for them to dissipate. With this in mind, I recalled Teddy’s suggestion and downloaded “Schadenfreude” from “Avenue Q” on iTunes.
From first listen, "Schadenfreude" made me laugh out loud -- of course it was all about acceptance of our own nature, bad, good or otherwise. On its surface the song may seem overly clever and snide but really, it’s a celebration of the thoughts and feelings we all have and must acknowledge before we can overcome them. “Schadenfreude” as a piece of music also manages to be blissfully snappy, so as we listen and identify with it, we not only get to feel good about having bad feelings, we get to hum a few bars, too! Just like “Grey’s” and “Juno,” this song got me to take some looks within I might not have bothered to otherwise. It almost makes me look forward to my next bout of ego-driven lunacy, so it can dissolve from say, the size of an Oscar to say, the size of a Sacagawea dollar. Which I would then forget about altogether because who ever thinks of a Sacagawea dollar? In fact, hmmm... Tina Fey... how YOU doin'? I've already got child care lined up so I can check for you in "Baby Mama," Homeslice. Like seriously, Meredith...
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