"Lady Bird" III: Greta Gerwig Makes Up to Her Mom

The auteur of "Lady Bird" not only loves her mother, she is indebted to her.

Posted Jan 07, 2018

The most shocking element of the 2018 Golden Globe Awards is that no woman director was nominated.  To be more blunt, Greta Gerwig specifically wasn't nominated, despite being critically acclaimed across the board (including by me) as a director with a unique style and message. (Perhaps puzzlingly, “Lady Bird” was selected as best film - for a musical or comedy!)

In her 2017 film, Lady Bird, and other films in which she appears and which she has co-written, Gerwig explores coming of age as a woman artist struggling with her upbringing and cultural milieu.  But she depicts this struggle without bitterness or trauma

Well, a little bit of bitterness.  Although in "Lady Bird" she finds nurturance all around her in her home town of Sacramento (she being Gerwig and her surrogate, Lady Bird), it is the city, the Catholic school she attended, and her mother against whom she flails.

The most emotionally grueling scenes are those in which she fights with her mother, who is depicted as constantly limiting and belittling Lady Bird (a name the character adopts for herself), including one scene in which she apparently attempts suicide (or a cinematic version thereof).

It is her ineffectual father who the film portrays as Lady Bird's backer who provides the support that enables her to escape the fate of being trapped in Sacramento.

But Gerwig has been attempting to right this image of her mother (and Sacramento) since the film appeared.  She describes her horror at people's thinking that the movie is direct autobiography.  (Why would they think that in a film about a girl from her home town who banks her life on fleeing to what has become her spiritual home, New York?)

There are some indicators that this film is not about Gerwig, per se.  After all, she did select an actress to play Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan (who won the Golden Globe as best actress), who differs quite a bit physically from Gerwig, just as the woman who plays her mother, Lauria Metcalf, is very physically distinct from Gerwig's own mother.

In a column in the New York Times, Gerwig goes to great lengths to draw attention to not only the physical traits she shares with her mother—"looking like I do now, with her big (slightly gummy) smile and lanky arms and a desire to walk until she can’t walk anymore"—but the emotional ones she learned from a mother, whom she portrays as her role model:

"She’s brash and smart and tough and funny, and was always the mother my school dreaded a call from because she would push and push and push until she got what she wanted. I was the only kid who was allowed to take both band and Spanish because of her insistence. She has more go-get-’em energy than almost anyone I’ve ever met."

The piece is about how Gerwig not only learned to love New York following her mother's lead, but how she learned her sense of independence and daring from her mom, starting with her mother's walking her two miles to a local Sacramento playground when she was a child.

"My mom did not believe in having your own play set. She thought it defeated the point of a playground, which was to make new friends and get comfortable with people who weren’t your family. In Sacramento, she would walk me down to McKinley Park. It was a couple of miles away, but it had the best playground. I was walking that distance with her by the time I was 4."

Why is that important?  Because New York playgrounds are a melting pot.  As Gerwig points out, even wealthy Upper East Siders take their kids to run around playgrounds and climb rocks in Central Park:

"My mom wasn’t my playmate, but she was the person who brought me out into the world and taught me that it was not scary. In New York, no one, not even the very wealthy, had their own private paradise; it had to be shared. City kids were good at playing, everyone was a stranger and everyone belonged. She had prepared me well."

(As I have described in Psychology Today, playgrounds are preparation for life and an antidote to fear.)

And Gerwig's mother didn't resist New York, as Lady Bird's mom did.  She taught her how to be a New Yorker on a couple of youthful visits:

"My mom held my hand tight as she walk-sprinted through the city. She was in her element here; everyone was moving as quickly as she was. She was joyfully sweaty. So was I. The Gerwig women belonged in New York."

We are glad for Greta Gerwig and her mother that the director has corrected the record.  Both women deserve all the credit in the world for the Gerwig genius that has emerged in American cinema.