Katherine and Me: How Late Night Lifts the Weight From Clinical Depression
While Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson’s perky comedy Late Night won over audiences with its slicing humour showing successful women at their peak, it didn’t shy away from any of the darker corners either. Reflecting on the film and the memories from her own professional past, Beandrea July uncovers how the film offers a fresh and truthful way of giving airtime to clinical depression.
In the climactic scene of Late Night, Emma Thompson’s character Katherine Newberry delivers a confessional monologue where she apologises for having an affair with one of her writers. During her emotionally raw speech, she makes a surprising declaration: “I feel more sad than I have ever felt and that’s saying something because I am clinically depressed.”
Revealing a depression diagnosis isn’t the point of her monologue, and so it’s easy to breeze past it – but that’s also what makes it worth pointing out. The speech marks a culmination of Katherine’s journey, from misogynistic misanthrope to open-minded mentor, reconnected to the feminist spark she had at the beginning of her career. With this monologue, a woman who at first glance seems cold and mean-spirited, is revealed in satisfying layers and her transformation feels complete. Without fanfare, Katherine presents a refreshing portrayal of what it’s like to be both clinically depressed and high functioning at work. Depression is never offered up as a teachable moment or the heavy-handed point.
Directed by Nishra Ganatra and with a script from the film’s co-star Mindy Kaling, Late Night was one of my favorite movies from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Many of my fellow film critics who are women and/or people of color raved too. Kaling’s script boldly critiques the boys club that has long kept talented women and people of colour from getting staffed on late-night shows, and yet Late Night has unfortunately made only a modest $17M worldwide since its June 2019 release – a flop by Hollywood standards.
Despite the box office disappointment, with an enjoyable blend of jokes and sharp commentary about sexisim in writers’ rooms, Late Night is a funny yet probing film that presents fully-fleshed out female characters that feel true to life. The film does a great job at character development for both women and men, which stands out as it is increasingly all too rare. Katherine Newberry is a wildly successful stand up comedian with a long-running late night show, a unicorn in a sea of men in navy blue suits. Yet part of the way she became successful and maintained her position was by consciously deciding not to rock the boat off-camera. For years, she staffs her entire writers room exclusively with white men, presumably to be seen as “one of the guys” in a world where she’s the only woman. It takes the threat of her show ending for her to finally hire a writer who doesn’t fit that profile: a South Asian American woman named Molly Patel. While Katherine’s public face is that of a feminist hero in entertainment, behind the curtain, she’s a misanthrope who practices the same kind of hiring discrimination against women as her male counterparts.
But Late Night shows why and how Katherine became someone who doesn’t support other women over time. Many critics have compared the film to The Devil Wears Prada, however, the two films are vastly different in the depth of portrayal of their protagonists. The audience learns that Meryl Streep’s character in Devil is in an unhappy marriage and under threat of being pushed out of her role as editor, and this is meant to explain her workplace cruelty. Ultimately, this backstory is not redemptive or endearing, instead landing as a thinly-veiled attempt to make an impolite woman more palatable for a wider audience.
In displaying the nuances of who Katherine is as an embattled television host, Kaling offers a protagonist arc that reveals how symptoms of depression — such as a tendency towards pessimism, or being perceived as standoffish or not a team player when coping with exhaustion and chronic sadness – can easily coalesce with latent misogyny. It’s the kind of misogyny that summarily dismisses ambitious women who don’t behave the way they are often expected to. When women like Katherine aren’t particularly warm, and speak candidly without ego polishing language, they are perceived as cruel and intimidating. In other words, a bitch. Late Night refuses to throw its lead away like that.
I know about being thrown away, especially when relates to showing up depressed at work. I made the mistake of telling my boss that I’d stopped taking my antidepressants and could feel him shifting into the caveman stance that can often go unchecked. The medication I’d been on for years suddenly stopped working, and none of the other generic medications worked. Even with employee sponsored health insurance, switching to the name brand would have cost 1600 USD a month out of pocket. In the midst of this, my job was to spend all day, every day on the phone with psychotherapists. I was a year into working for a company that sells software for mental health professionals. If ever there was a workplace that should have been compassionate about my state of mind, it was that one.
Not long after, I was ‘let go’ for reasons I’ve never received a clear answer on. My boss was litigiously aware enough, so he knew not to link the firing to what I had told him about my meds. Instead, he said, “I don’t think you working here is healthy for the other people on the team.” Just like that, I was a pariah. Despite there being no complaints about the quality of my work, I was fired. My boss’ emotional intelligence was in the negative digits, and I had brought him to the limits of what he was comfortable with.
Molly Patel made a similar confession to her boss in Late Night, except she was able to have an informed conversation with Katherine about her experience of suffering from mental illness. When Katherine sees Molly watching old YouTube videos of her early stand comedy performances, she does a bit in her standup comedy show about schizophrenia and depression. Molly asks Katherine if she was really depressed, or if it was just for her act. Katherine says yes, and admits that she is still clinically depressed. That confession opens the door for Molly to admit that she too is suffering. This exchange between an employer and her employee is played without sentimentality, and that is what makes it refreshing. A demanding boss and her employee are having an honest, professional conversation about mental health, and it is no big deal – the scene amounts to a breezy diffusion of any stigma.
Molly and Katherine perceive the way that clinical depression manifests in people differently. “When you hate yourself, the only thing that makes you feel better is to get other people to feel that way too”, Katherine admits to Molly. Here, she offers a succinct gut punch description of what it looks like when your brain turns against you and robs you of any self-worth. Katherine’s unattainable high standards for her staff plant their roots in this cycle of hatred too. No one can measure up, because her brain has convinced her that even when she works herself to the bone and succeeds, her successes are somehow still not worthy of celebration. Depression doesn’t excuse Katherine’s behaviour, but it does invite the audience to consider her in a different light. She’s harsh, but she comes by it honestly.
For Molly, a newbie paying dues in her first professional writing job, expressing unfiltered emotion and saying what she actually thinks when pitching jokes is part of the way clinical depression manifests itself. Katherine says to her, “Your obsession with catharsis is narcissism”. For Katherine’s generation of women in comedy, expressing genuine feelings is frowned upon. Authenticity makes you vulnerable to attacks by people who want you to fail. But for Molly, being her true self is the only way she knows how to survive in this new world.
Although they argue throughout the film—Katherine fired and rehired Molly twice—by the end, the two women come to understand one another. Molly’s earnestness annoys Katherine because it makes her face a hard truth: she’s so used to fighting for a place in an industry that never made her life easy, that she’s lost sight of the fact that to succeed, she doesn’t need to put up this cold, women-aversive exterior anymore. For Molly, her once dethroned role model in Katherine never returns to a pedestal. Instead, Katherine becomes someone much more useful, a flawed human being who uses her shortcomings to her advantage in a world that doesn’t make it easy for women to succeed.
As I walked out of the theatre in Park City after first seeing Late Night, I couldn’t help but think about the job I lost years ago. Those feelings of being misunderstood and discarded swelled up in me all over again. If only I’d had a boss who could see me as more than a medical study, a boss who could allow me the space to be vulnerable, as Katherine and Molly did for each other, maybe things would have turned out differently. But to already see a convincing example of women at work discussing depression without being punished by its stigma, I could feel the lingering shame had lifted, no longer mine alone to carry.
Beandrea July (@beandreadotcom) is a culture writer based in Los Angeles and the creator/writer/director of the fiction podcast Centered (centeredpodcast.com). Film festivals are her happy place.