Are We Finally Ready For Diablo Cody?
With the release of Lisa Frankenstein — and the resuscitation of Jennifer’s Body — it seems culture has caught up to the audacious screenwriter.
The woman sitting across from me is, for all intents and purposes, Diablo Cody. When her children hear the name cited on The Simpsons and ask, “Diablo Cody’s you, right?” she says yes. When she goes to the doctor, that’s the name on her file. When I arranged to speak with the screenwriter of the new film Lisa Frankenstein, that’s who I asked for. And now here she is, sipping a Diet Coke at The Whitby Hotel’s restaurant, wearing a pink beret and black sweater dress with animals on it, a nod to the ’80s setting of her latest film.
“I’m doing my best. Writers don’t have stylists,” says Diablo Cody.
Except, to almost everyone who knows her — to the actors who rave to me about working with her — she is Brook Maurio (née Busey). In recent years, she’s thought about ditching the pseudonym about “a hundred times,” but balked at the pile of paperwork that would be required. “I’m stuck with it,” she shrugs.
The pen name was born online in the early aughts, when she was a 20-something Midwesterner. She was working soul-sucking 9-to-5s, receiving nothing but rejections from literary magazines for her poetry and feeling stuck.
“I thought, like, ‘OK, maybe if I write about stripping, people will pay attention,’” says Cody, who’d worked as a dancer in Minneapolis for a year, on a lark. “And they did, which is so predictable.” She launched a long-defunct blog called “The Pussy Ranch” and created a pen name in order to safely write about topics without scandalizing her Catholic parents.
The blog eventually landed her a memoir deal, paving the path for her first screenplay. “She sat down to write a script, her first script, at a Starbucks in a Target on her coffee breaks,'' says director Jason Reitman, who cast then-up-and-coming actors Elliot Page and Michael Cera as the fast-talking teen parents-to-be in her story, called Juno. “And she won an Academy Award.”
But just as Diablo Cody was ascending to Hollywood’s greatest heights, a weight was tied to her ankle. She was a former stripper with tattoos and a penchant for leopard print; in 2007, this was simply too much. Shortly before Juno premiered, the New York Times published a story titled “Diablo Cody: Climbing the stripper pole to Hollywood stardom.” The Associated Press went with “Ex-stripper Diablo Cody beats odds with ‘Juno’ screenplay.” And just days after she took home the Academy Award, Fox News published a story designed to cut her down to size: “Topless Photos Said to Be of Oscar-Winning ‘Juno’ Screenwriter Diablo Cody Emerge.”
Today, intellectual writing about sex work, labor, and art is all the rage, but at the time, many seemed to believe that sex work and brainpower were fundamentally incompatible, and men weren’t the only culprits. “Most girls I knew hated strippers,” she writes in her memoir, Candy Girl. “They used ‘stripper’ as an adjective to dismiss anything that was crass, blowsy or distasteful.”
From the outside, she seemed to keep it together. “I was simply in awe of her ability to navigate publicity and the creation of self image,” Reitman says of that era. “She has that rare gift to see herself standing there in third person.”
But she freely admits that it was hard, especially when she was criticized for her appearance on the Oscars red carpet. “Looking back, I should have just worn a full-length [dress]. I should have worn sleeves. It’s not fun having people fat-shaming you,” she says. (She still has the leopard gown but is not the last to have worn it: A friend borrowed it for a drag performance.)
Roughly a year later, in 2009, her second movie came out, the teen horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried as an undead boy-killer and her mousy best friend. People did not like it. (Really, the boys it was marketed to did not get it.)
Suddenly, living in Diablo Cody’s skin no longer felt tenable. “I remember going in for an ultrasound with my oldest son, and it said Diablo Cody on the ultrasound because my Writers Guild insurance was being used for my patient profile. And that was when I officially was like, this has gone too far,” she says.
So she decided to reinvent herself, this time as Brook, The Mom. “I was like, [becoming a mother] is my perfect excuse to not be this person anymore, because everyone hates her,” she says. “I was ready to escape from this thing that I had created, to get back to something real.”
Fifteen years after the Jennifer’s Body media circus, Cody lives in Los Angeles with her three children, the eldest of whom is 14. (She took her ex-husband’s surname because she liked its Italian flair, and has kept it since their split.) She’s still Brook, The Mom, but she’s also carved out a space for herself — an identity that doesn’t solely exist in relation to her kids. “I think I’ve figured out how to be that person when I need to be and do kind of a Hannah Montana, ‘Best of Both Worlds’ situation,’” says Cody, who’s 45.
In doing so, she’s built an enduring career in Hollywood, having created one award-winning TV show with the help of Steven Spielberg (United States of Tara), another with Tig Notaro (One Mississippi), and tried her hand at directing (Paradise), though she didn’t much care for it. She picked up a Tony for writing the book for an Alanis Morissette jukebox musical, Jagged Little Pill, and she’s written five more movies, too, two of which were directed by Reitman: 2011’s Young Adult and 2018’s Tully, both starring Charlize Theron.
As Notaro says, “She truly just goes away and writes her face off and then reappears with hit movies.”
Still, the battle scars of the early aughts remain. “I am terrified of being disliked because I got so much sh*t early in my career, that I feel like I still am having to prove people wrong,” Cody says. “I’m such a doormat because I want them to come out of the experience going, ‘Actually, she was really, really easygoing.’”
She truly just goes away and writes her face off and then reappears with hit movies.
When Theron met Cody on the set of Young Adult, she was shocked by her humility. “She was a little twitchy and kind of like, ‘Am I in the way? Should I be here?’” she tells Bustle. “It was interesting, because having read the script, I thought she would be more like, I don’t know, I guess like a ball-buster, which she is in a different way, but she doesn’t play that. That’s not the first layer that you see of her.” (They still talk, mostly about reality TV: “We will email each other when something happens on Sister Wives and be like, ‘Oh my God, did you see what Mary did?’” says Theron.)
Her scripts, on the other hand, remain as audacious as ever, and with Lisa Frankenstein, she’s even dipping her toe back into the horror-comedy space. The new film, directed by Zelda Williams, is a neon-lit, hairspray-coated romantic comedy about a teenage girl (Kathryn Newton) who finds herself falling for, and partly reassembling, a reanimated corpse (Cole Sprouse). In Jennifer’s Body times, some of the scenes might’ve been hard to push through the studio, but this is not then. “These days, the severed penises — no one’s going to bat an eye,” Cody says.
Lisa Frankenstein’s relatively painless path to theaters might speak to our era’s appetite for men’s comeuppance. (What’s a little on-screen castration in the name of catharsis?)
Fans today revel in the bloody revenge the women of Jennifer’s Body exert over men who wronged them, as well as the homoerotic undertones. TikTokers share clips of Jennifer (Fox) burning her tongue in the mirror, and offer tips on how to DIY her heart-print hoodie. It has ascended to cult-classic status. “One of the great joys of my life has been watching the world embrace Jennifer’s Body,” says Reitman, a producer on the film. “Particularly my daughter, who has watched it more than any other film of mine by a factor of 50.”
Now that Cody knows the audience will be there, she wants to make a sequel to Jennifer’s Body. There’s plenty of material to sink her teeth into. “First of all, I think it’s pretty obviously a queer relationship between Needy and Jennifer,” she says of what she’d revisit. “We didn’t get to go there, at least not as much as we wanted to. Luckily the subtext was there, and people were able to take that away. But I want to know what their background is. I know they’ve been friends a long time, but let’s talk about that.”
In Lisa Frankenstein, little is suppressed in the subtext. “The only real conflict we had behind the scenes, which I now concur that I was wrong about, is that [the studio] always wanted the movie to be PG-13. I fought that, because there was one scene that was really important to me,” Cody says. “It was the creature getting Lisa off with his new hand, which they had sourced from the guy that assaulted her. I thought that was powerful. And now, she still gets off, but it’s remotely, and you hear a vibrator from the other room. It’s not this up-close, kind of intimate experience I wanted it to be. But we had to lose it to get the PG-13, and ultimately, I’m glad we did.” Nobody needs sex-comedy-horror more than high school girls.
For every beloved Diablo Cody project, there’s one amazing-sounding one that never came to fruition. She was attached to the Barbie movie while Amy Schumer was still set to star, but failed to crack the script. Her live-action reboot of the Powerpuff Girls made it to pilot before getting shelved. (It would’ve focused on the titular trio all grown up, she says, forced to fight monsters again while also reckoning with “their childhood as superheroes, and realizing that they had been exploited and put in dangerous situations all for the entertainment of [their town].”)
And then there was the summer she spent wrestling Madonna’s career onto the page, only to let that one go, too. “Madonna is a god. She truly is. She does not disappoint in terms of being the celebrity that you need her to be,” Cody tells me. The trouble, she says, was that Madonna’s lived many lives; who’s to say which deserve the most screen time?
Cody can relate. “I'm constantly reinventing myself, I always have,” she says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a good trait. It is a strategy for me.” She dates her first transformation to her high school days, when her brother left for college and she finally came out of her shell; since then, there has been a constant string of Brooks, each angling to be better than the last.
She isn’t afraid to look back on her past selves critically. Juno has been re-evaluated for its teenaged character’s decision to carry her baby to term; without Roe v. Wade, it reads as less quirky, more anti-abortion. Cody, who is pro-choice and helped organize a 2017 live-read with the Juno cast to benefit Planned Parenthood, has said she wouldn’t write Juno today. It belongs to the past: a different country, with more rights.
I’m constantly reinventing myself, I always have.
She’s all but disowned her 2005 memoir for its “myopic” take on sex work. The book is casually cruel to Pamela Anderson and other women celebrities of the ’90s and early aughts, but now, she speaks of them with reverence: “It would’ve been impossible for someone like Pamela Anderson to honestly be treated with any respect at that time or to be seen as anything but eye candy,” says Maurio. “So I love seeing her being validated as a thinker [today].”
She admits to feeling a little ambient cancellation anxiety, but she believes in accountability, and rolls her eyes at those who whine about cancel culture. Still, she wonders if there’s a space for redemption. “I sometimes wonder if the younger people who are calling for the permanent banishment of certain people maybe haven’t been alive long enough to understand that you can evolve. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re just tougher than I am, I don’t know.”
If you’ve seen Young Adult, in which Theron’s character refuses to grow up even a little bit, you’d be forgiven for thinking Cody too is skeptical of personal growth. Just the opposite. “I do believe that people can grow and change,” she says. “I personally know that I have. There are so many opinions I had in the past that were problematic that I no longer have.”
We change; we stay the same. She fingers a scar on her forehead, hidden behind her jet-black bangs. “This morning I was getting my makeup done. The makeup artist said, ‘Oh, you have a scar up here,’” she says. “The scar on my forehead is literally from 1979. How crazy is it that there’s still a sign, a physical sign of something that happened to me 44 years ago? Because I cannot fathom that I’m still that baby.”
Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect the marital status of Diablo Cody (aka Brook Maurio).
Photographs by Juan Veloz
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