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[whitespace] 'Nurse Betty' Love on the run: Renee Zellweger trips out on television romance in Nurse Betty.


Soap Box

Author Paula Sharp on soap operas, romantic love, and 'Nurse Betty'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, ideas, and popular culture.

LESS THAN 15 minutes into the offbeat new comedy Nurse Betty, Renee Zellweger's scumbag husband (Aaron Eckhart) is riotously scalped in his own living room by a pair of raving hit men (Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman). It's not a pretty sight.

My guest this afternoon--New York novelist Paula Sharp (author of Crows Over a Wheatfield and the new I Loved You All)--responds to this cinematic mayhem as many sane persons would: she cowers in her seat, both hands over her eyes, praying for the bloodshed to end.

Renee Zellweger's sweet, soap opera-loving Betty, however, reacts to her husband's icky murder (she's hiding in the bedroom at the time) in a much less predictable manner, suffering a shock-induced psychotic break. Suddenly delusional, she thinks her favorite soap opera, A Time to Love, is real and that she's the former fiancée of the show's fictional Dr. David, played by handsome actor George McCord (played by handsome actor Greg Kinnear).

In Betty's mind, her husband isn't dead; she's just leaving him. With the hit men in pursuit, our heroine--the murder's only witness--heads off to Los Angeles to "reunite" with her long-lost love. Further violence ensues (but, hey! No more scalpings!).

"I might have walked out if I'd been by myself," says Sharp, laughing about it after the show, her warm blue eyes bright with excitement. "But I'm so glad I stuck it out, because Nurse Betty is brilliant! It's film noir meets soap opera. It's a seamless collision of these two highly stylized film genres that would normally seem to be polar opposites. The violence was necessary because, by comparison, it made the whole soap opera world seem so funny and absurd. It's the best thematic collision I've seen in years."

Paula Sharp likes it when things collide.

She's made a few things collide on her own. Crows over a Wheatfield (Hyperion), set in the strange world of the family court system, became a bestseller in 1996, in part owing to its author's knack for taking a serious, potentially morose subject (domestic violence) and cramming it with unexpected pockets of laugh-out-loud humor. Now, with I Loved You All (Hyperion; $23.95), Sharp pulls off an even trickier stunt, producing a riveting comedy about abortion.

Borrowing her novel's title from a line in Gwendolyn Brooks' controversial poem "The Mother," Sharp--a former criminal defense lawyer--confronts us with the astonishing Isabel Flood, a rabid right-to-life activist who coolly insinuates herself into an eccentric but troubled family in upstate New York. The wildly unexpected results play out in a rich, semi-satirical tone that is not easy to describe. It's no wonder, then, that Sharp enjoyed Nurse Betty.

Like her own work, it defies categorization.

"I'VE NEVER BEEN a big fan of soap operas," Sharp insists, as we chew our way through a late after-movie lunch, "though I did live in Brazil once, and I let myself get hooked on Brazilian soap operas. But those are so wild and over-the-top, the whole country stops to watch them. They're nothing like American soap operas."

"Which leads to the question," I insert, "of what their appeal really is. Why are soap operas so meaningful to so many people?"

"If your life is unbearable, then I suppose soap operas are a good way of losing yourself," Sharp suggests. "I'm sure that's why so many women have watched them over the decades. Soap opera is more interesting than a lot of women's lives."

"So soap operas are dangerous, right?" I assume.

"No, of course they're not," she retorts, with a shake of her head. I don't think they're dangerous at all. I mean, sure, if I had a daughter, I wouldn't want her to have that soap-opera notion of romantic love and go out to the world with that, because that view of the world is not realistic. But women enjoy soap operas, and why shouldn't they? People are entitled to their fantasies.

"But you obviously don't agree," Sharp says. She must have noticed the incredulous look on my face. I admit I never expected Paula Sharp to be a defender of Days of Our Lives.

"I think soap operas are dangerous," I suggest. "You admit they project an unrealistic view of the world and that they are watched mainly by unhappy people. We already know the harm caused when unhappy teenagers spend hours in front of violent video games and movies. So can't we assume that spending two to six hours a day in the world of soap operas is equally harmful?"

"I can't believe you're moralizing about soap operas," Sharp teases, openly laughing at me. "Maybe the problem isn't soap operas themselves. Maybe it's sitting around the house watching TV for two to six hours a day that's dangerous. Personally, I like Star Trek.

"But to get back to the movie," she continues, "one of the reasons I liked it--and one of the reasons I like hyperbole so much--is that there is truth to be found in exaggeration. Fiction writers are taught that you can't make a character all bad or all good. As the daughter of an anthropologist, I've always thought that the way people view character in our culture is merely cultural. We believe everyone has bad and good in them because that's what we're taught. We're supposed to believe that everyone is half bad and half good.

"But I don't believe that," Sharp concludes. "I think some people, like Betty, are remarkably good. And some people, like the Chris Rock character, have so little good in them it's impossible to see it.

"That might seem like hyperbole," she concludes, "but it doesn't mean it's not the truth."

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From the September 28-October 4, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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