Friday, June 21, 2019

"Late Night": Rancor in the Writers’ Room

It’s not easy being the only “girl” in the room. That’s what Mindy Kaling faces when, she lands on the writing staff of a big-name late-night talk show. In the film Late Night, Mindy plays Molly, an eager-to-please young woman who just happens to walk through the door after the show’s host decrees that the next hire be female. (Being brown doesn’t hurt either.) So there she is, an obvious diversity hire, surrounded by white males who are convinced she has nothing to offer. 

I admit I felt her pain. It took me back to when I, as a very young PhD, nabbed what seemed like a dream job, a tenure-track position at a major university. I wasn’t exactly the sole woman present at my first faculty meeting: there were two elderly females who’d been there for years and were considered part of the furniture. But my introduction to my new colleagues could have been better. The chairman of my department, noting that I’d worked in the film industry, gave me “credit” for not only writing and overseeing but also appearing on screen in porno films. (Hey, Roger Corman flicks may have their T&A moments, but they hardly qualify as porn!.) .Everyone eyed me curiously. I should have realized then that my days as a serious academic were numbered.

Of course we in the audience know, when Mindy is reduced to sitting on an overturned wastebasket because no one will grant her a chair, that eventually she’ll prove her mettle. (The fact that the plucky Kaling wrote this film and served as one of its producers is a guarantee that she’ll land sunny-side up.) But the big boss whom everyone hates and fears is not some alpha male. Instead it’s Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury, a late-night host who’s one part Ellen DeGeneres (cropped hair and tennies) and one part prima donna. She may come across on the tube as friendly and fun, but  behind the scenes Katherine is a true dragon lady, snapping at her staff, firing folks left and right. Part of this, of course, may be insecurity: her show, popular for years, has seen a steep ratings decline, and she’s just been informed by the network head (yes, another woman) that she’s destined for the chopping block.

It’s remarkable, really, how many words there are in the English language for pushy females. I’ve just used a few of them: prima donna, dragon lady. And of course there’s the B-word. Interesting how many movies I can think of in which a female boss deserves these epithets. See Sigourney Weaver (who steals other women’s bright ideas) in Working Girl.  And, of course Meryl Streep as the diva of all divas, Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada. In each case a likable newcomer (Melanie Griffith, Anne Hathaway) has to get past an older female who grants her no respect. That’s Kaling’s role too, but Thompson’s Katherine is not simply an ogress who has to be taken down a peg. We see enough of her to learn her admirable traits: high intellect, a respect for quality in all its forms, enough self-knowledge to realize that she hasn’t lived up to her own lofty ideals.

As Katherine’s husband, John Lithgow reveals the side of her that few people see. In last year’s The Wife, another great mature actress, Glenn Close, played a role in which her spouse won the accolades she herself deserved. Catherine’ musician husband, diminished by Parkinson’s, is glad to grant her the spotlight. He only wants—as Kaling’s Molly wants—her to be her very best self.

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