American Cinema Has Produced Its First Woman Auteur

Greta Gerwig voices the displacement of the Continental divide

Posted Nov 04, 2017

Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird," starring Saoirse Ronan and, as her mother, the brilliant Laurie Metcalf, is Gerwig's first solely directed film. It is, strictly speaking, a coming-of-age story about a girl from Sacramento who struggles to escape to the artistic fate that awaits her - via the college application route - in New York City. It is a funny and a sad story - you know, like Chaplin's "Gold Rush" and Hitchcock's "North By Northwest."

It is Gerwig's actual story, as depicted until her departure for college (and a little of the time thereafter - enough time to be hospitalized and to call home).  Gerwig doesn't reject any part of that story - Sacramento, her own rudeness and insensitivity, sex, and - most critically - some kind of insatiable drive she had (and has) to create stories about, well, displaced American women - dare I say, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant women? (Although "Lady Bird" takes place in a Catholic girl's school like the one Gerwig attended, her family were Unitarians. Was that a formula for fomenting an outsider's point of view in Gerwig, perhaps a fate that her mother - with whom she is depicted as being in constant conflict in the film because, well, she's so not ready to stay where she is - surreptitiously wished for her?)

Gerwig has appeared in 25 films as an actress - beginning with New York underground movies, but most recently as a supporting player in such notable films that she didn't direct or write as "20th Century Women," "Jackie," and the less well-known "Maggie's Plan" - and been part of the creative team in five, including "Frances Ha" (2012) and "Mistress America" (2015) - in which she partnered - as she does in her personal life - with New York-bred Noah Baumbach. In the three latter films she's a late-blooming, not-destined-for-success WASP struggling to survive, let alone succeed creatively, in New York and environs. Gerwig is a person willing to put her - forget her sex life, her innards - on the line, but to see and to emphasize the humor, sometimes sheer joy, of the journey.

And so her characters can be both pathetic and noble, under life-survival circumstances - you know, like Chaplin's little tramp in "The Gold Rush," "City Lights," "Modern Times," and "The Great Dictator," and the vacuous Cary Grant, given a fake identity and made to fight for his life, in "North By Northwest," along with Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo" and John Wayne in Ford's "The Searchers."

Capturing that complexity in entertaining films is what great directors do.