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Giving birth to 'Juno'

Former stripper Diablo Cody finds a checkered past inspires great writing.

December 06, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

A couple of years ago, Diablo Cody called her parents in suburban Chicago to tell them she was getting her first book published. That was the good news. "Then I have to say, 'Wait, the book is about something that I did for a year that I didn't tell you about, that will horrify you,' " recounts the author. "My mom started guessing. I guess the term 'crack dealer' came up."

In fact, Cody, whose real name is Brook Busey-Hunt, spent a year stripping in clubs and masturbating for paying customers in a peep show in Minneapolis. For her parents, hard drugs would have been preferable. "My mother would have rather I wrote a distaff 'Million Little Pieces' than a stripper memoir, because I was raised in a Catholic household and sex is the ultimate taboo. If I don't cross my legs in a certain way when I'm seated in a dress, [my mom] gets a little nervous."

Cody's first screenwriting effort, "Juno," debuted on Wednesday, and it contains a memorable scene in which 15-year-old Juno (Ellen Page) confesses to her parents that she's pregnant. Clearly, shades of Cody's own past crept into the script, as Juno's father and stepmom (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) first try to guess what horrible thing their daughter is trying to summon up the courage to tell them. ("Do you need a large sum of money? Legal counsel?") And after Juno has retreated upstairs, the stunned pair commiserate. Her stepmom says with a sigh, "I was hoping she was expelled or into hard drugs," to which her dad responds, "That was my first instinct too. Or D.U.I. Anything but this."

Like Juno, the 29-year old Cody has to deal with a birth of her own -- of her film, her meteoric screenwriting career, her full-tilt plunge into the media limelight. Over lunch recently at a Melrose Avenue restaurant, the writer, a Los Angeles transplant as of April, appeared slightly dazed, as if she were just waking up after a long night of partying. In fact, this is her first day off from a marathon of travel, a different plane every day, as she's barnstormed Europe and the U.S. talking to journalists about "Juno." She's dressed in a turquoise T-shirt, with sparkling silver letters proclaiming "Rock and Roll Party all night long," and has a cap smashed down on her black Louise Brooks bob. On one arm is a tattoo of a pinup girl, which she recently had burnished, and the newly applied ink left her bedsheets looking like "the shroud of Turin."

Cody is at once exuberant and wary about the media glare. About six months ago, when the cognoscenti starting calling her the next big thing, it was easy to see her as a screenwriter with a trick up her sleeve. Now that the movie's out, it's clear that Cody lives up to the hype.

In a town that shells out millions of dollars for screenplays so practiced that they read as though the human element has all but been squelched, hers is an authentic voice, alternately sardonic, wide-eyed, hilarious and sad.

"I've always gotten a large ration of negative reactions to positive in my writing," she says. "For some reason, it tends to provoke reactions on the extreme ends of the spectrum. I hate the idea that I'm some sort of self-invented Gatsby-type figure who clawed her way to the top. I have done nothing of the sort. I'm Forrest Gump. I feel like I'm superimposed in all these scenarios. I don't know what the hell I'm doing here."

Cody is certainly a refreshing conundrum, an unexpected mishmash and a self-declared "radical feminist" who's routinely received angry e-mails from readers who believe that's she a female chauvinist, complicit with the porn industry. Her memoir "Candy Girl" is certainly not for the fainthearted, full of the up-close-and-personal details of what it's like to strip and entertain depraved customers. Her book combines Diane Arbus prurience with a wacky sense of humor and Midwestern do-it-yourselfness; it landed her as David Letterman's one-and-only "Book Club 2006 pick" and a jaunty appearance on the show, where she declared herself the "Margaret Mead of sex."

In the book, she glosses over her motivations, except to say she wanted to escape from her life of privilege. Although she still likes going to strip clubs, today she says "they're gross places. They're little shame terrariums. I guess I was raised to feel shame more acutely than any other emotion. Maybe I felt that's home."

Perhaps this is why "Juno" might be one of the few movies, indeed one of the first pop-culture artifacts, that has dealt with teen pregnancy without the usual tsunami of humiliation.

Ironically enough, this ardently pro-choice gal has recently had her politics doubted by those who note that her protagonist Juno opts against an abortion after a punky Planned Parenthood receptionist offers her a boysenberry-flavored condom and tells her to fill out a raft of paperwork, adding, "We need to know about every score and every sore."

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