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The Millennial Magic of Greta Gerwig and ‘Lady Bird’

Saoirse Ronan (left) and director Greta Gerwig on set of "Lady Bird" (A24/Instagram)

One of the few most-talked-about films in this Sunday’s Oscar race that does not feature a superhero or a sci-fi dystopia is Greta Gerwig’s award-winning Lady Bird. For better or worse, it is definitely not a biopic of our late first lady, Lady Bird Johnson. It’s the story of a lower-middle-class girl about to graduate from her prestigious Catholic high school with two boyfriends, part-time jobs, and a tough-as-nails but loving mom.

Lady Bird lives in the twin netherworlds of Sacramento (large, culturally alive, and Californian) and the early George W. Bush era (after 9/11 but before the economy fell apart; after cell phones and the internet but before smart phones, Facebook, or even MySpace).

And yet, when I think about Lady Bird’s life in 2003, and that of the movie’s 34-year-old enigmatic writer-director, I think of a phrase I read years ago as a fledgling media historian, written by the late Variety columnist Les Brownfrom a 1971 thumbs-down of The Flip Wilson Show. Using almost unthinkably vulgar language by today’s standards, Brown said that Wilson’s stock comic characters—sassy ghetto diva Geraldine Jones,  the “name it and claim it” black preacher Reverend LeRoy, and the pigtailed honey child Sapphire—were all “so distinctly Negro, they had no credible coordinates in white society.”  

Despite the questionable taste of Brown’s utterances, I never forgot them, because I found the larger construction to be so useful in both my career and life itself. And what occurs to me is that Lady Bird—and Gerwig’s own stature as a Hollywood A-lister—is so distinctly Millennial that it has no credible corollary in any other era. That’s why I’m betting on it as an odds-on favorite to win Best Picture this Sunday (and I won’t be surprised if Best Director is either the consolation prize or a double win either). 

The “indie film” era that began in earnest in the very late 80s with Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Do The Right Thing (with the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant paving the way before) hit its apex in the mid-90s with the independently made, DIY debuts of Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, M. Night Shymalayan, Joss Whedon, and Quentin Tarantino. Just as early-70s Hollywood had no choice but to recognize Spielberg, Scorsese, DePalma, Coppola, Cassavetes, and Warren Beatty as a rising Boomer generation ignored or untapped by the sentries of the Golden Age, these edgy moviemakers found a glide path into the Gen X aesthetic. Soon, all of the above were getting major studio opportunities, resulting in a century-ending tsunami of  “existentialist,” “ironic,” and “literary” films that also made bank at the box office or on video as cult classics: Magnolia, Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, Brothers McMullen, Swingers, American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, Requiem for a Dream, Traffic, Boys Don’t Cry, Girl Interrupted, Almost Famous, Velvet Goldmine, The Hours, and Pulp Fiction, to name a few.

Like a digital SFX edit, this corporate culture began morphing into the bifurcated system that we know today, as big studios opened up air-quote “indie” arthouse boutique divisions (Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features) on one hand, while becoming ever-more dependent on blow-em-up action movies, comic books, “torture porn,” and potty comedies appealing to 15-year-old boys on the other.

Meanwhile, as new digital cameras and editing technologies vastly reduced the price of making a film, the genre of micro-budgeted, do-it-yourself mumblecore took modern-day independent cinema into its second wave—which brings us back to Gerwig. Getting her start with Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers (Baghead in 2008),Gerwig’s first major roles were in films like LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs, the latter a quirky, coming-of-young-adulthood romantic dramedy.

Trained for the stage in musical comedy and aspiring to be a playwright, the Barnard (and Catholic school) graduate thought that—despite younger film critics and fanboys calling her the “It Girl” of small indies—mainstream success might elude her. But indie pioneer Noah Baumbach tabbed Gerwig for the female lead opposite Ben Stiller in the early 2010s Greenberg, raising Gerwig’s profile several more notches. She and Baumbach collaborated on Frances Ha!, the tale of a flaky and pretentious but unstoppable young dancer trying to start her “artistic” career in post-recession New York. Needless to say, that’s a story many a media-centered, humanities-grad Millennial can identify with, as was its follow-up, Mistress America, reviewed by TAC’s Eve Tushnet.

Gerwig also stands out for her style of acting, a departure from what’s usually expected of a top-billing actress. Many a Golden Age star—think Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor—were forces of nature on-screen. There was simply no way not to watch them. Likewise, their Gen X daughters and granddaughters—Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie—regularly and proudly used every scene-stealing trick in the book, and have been rewarded for doing so. Even “America’s Sweethearts” like Debbie Reynolds, Julie Andrews, Tina Fey, and Jennifer Aniston knew how to dominate whenever they wanted to.

When Gerwig was winning her first major plaudits and acclaim, what many critics both admired and subtly dissed her for was her “naturalistic” style. Though she had the talent, she refused to use play-it-to-the-back-row theatrics or go over the top. Charming as she was, she didn’t steal scenes for the sake of stealing them.

It’s that sensibility that Gerwig brought to her directorial debut. Though backed by mega-mogul Scott Rudin and featuring a not-so-indie $10 million budget (that will get you Saoirse Ronan in the title role, plus established older costars like Roseanne veteran Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother), the film is a glossier, hi-def version of her early films.

After the Academy expanded its annual Best Picture selections from five to 10 (in much the same way as their Emmys kid sister had to recognize web series and alternative media as well as broadcast and cable TV), small and personalized films with an indie (even cheap) aesthetic have begun inching closer than ever to the crown. In 2015, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was beaten only by an avant-garde film that brutally satirized Hollywood’s dependence on sure-thing franchises (Birdman), directed by a globe-trotting Latino director using almost defiantly magical-realist storytelling. And last year, Moonlight—the story of an abused, gay, black youth navigating 1990s and early 2000s Florida—managed to take the top prize.

Yet the same year that the boys of Moonlight won, Annette Bening was disgracefully erased from Oscar consideration for her deserving turn in 20th Century Women, the closest thing to an older, spiritual prequel to Lady Bird. In the year of #MeToo and #TimesUp, Lady Bird is an unapologetically female-oriented film. But it’s definitely not a so-called “women’s picture.” And while the story of Lady Bird is that of a young woman truly becoming just that, it isn’t “empowering” in the invincible, Wonder Woman/Beyonce sense either.

Put simply, as an ever-so-slightly-older Gen-Xer, it would have been unthinkable in my youth for a film like, say, Trainspotting or even Do The Right Thing to have been seriously considered for a Best Picture Oscar. More to the point, those movies, which helped define my generation in our tween and teenage years, were lucky to scramble just a couple of million before making their way to the racks at Blockbuster. Lady Bird has already broken the $50 million mark. Even a few years ago, a story of a bunch of sweaty young Millennials building the most important website in modern history was demolished by the old-fashioned pomp and circumstance of The King’s Speech.

Gerwig might well change that if she becomes only the second woman in Hollywood history to win Best Director, let alone if Lady Bird wins Best Picture. And even if the film doesn’t score, its impact is still being felt. It’s clear that, on Lady Bird’s wings, we’re watching a new style of Hollywood female stardom and industry clout take flight—both in front of and behind the camera.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”

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