The frustration over no women nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes (and some fear, the Oscars) reached a tipping point when presenter Natalie Portman pointedly introduced the “all-male nominees.” In a year that saw incredible, female-directed films resonate with audiences and critics, it reads as a form of sexism. As the awards race narrows, this frustration is becoming focused on “Lady Bird,” a near universally praised film that has become a leading contender in a number of big categories, including Best Picture, Actress and Screenplay — but possibly, not Director.
Complicating matters is “Lady Bird” doesn’t easily fit into Hollywood or the Academy’s concept of great directing. Guillermo del Toro’s constantly moving and beautifully orchestrated camera in “The Shape of Water” creates a magical sensation that his characters are ready to burst into song at any moment. Steven Spielberg takes potential dry and expository material about journalism and turns into a fun action film — the Katherine Graham superhero origin story, if you will — which, by the conclusion has us ready for the newly formed Washington Post team to take down the evil Dr. Nixon in the teased “Watergate” sequel. Christopher Nolan masterfully places us in the middle of existential survival in “Dunkirk,” while Jordan Peele manipulates genre, and the audience, in Hitchcockian fashion to create a satisfyingly subversive and profound genre film, “Get Out.”
It even feels more likely that AMPAS voters would prefer to recognize Patty Jenkins (and still might) for a less awards-friendly “Wonder Woman“ over Gerwig (apparently, there can only be one female Best Director nominee, so it’s Dee Rees vs. Jenkins vs. Gerwig). Jenkins, like Kathryn Bigelow — the one woman who has won the Oscar for Best Director (“The Hurt Locker”) — better fits the Academy’s concept of a director. She orchestrated armies in front of and behind the camera, demonstrating both an obvious element of control and use of craft, coupled with a perceived degree of difficulty. In other words, Gerwig isn’t simply facing blatant sexism of voters picking a man over the woman, but also a more masculine concept of what is directing, or to put a finer point on it, what is cinematic.
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“Lady Bird” fits the bill of a movie that is celebrated for its script and award-contending performances from lead Saoirse Ronan as well as Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts. From the beginning of Hollywood, women have been viewed as being capable with dealing with the emotional aspects of storytelling and being “good with actors.” “Lady Bird” doesn’t fit easily into the classic sense of great directing — a concept only exacerbated by the explosion of film schools that lazily teach early film history as Fritz Lang and Orson Welles, then skip to the French New Wave.
And yet, for those who believe in the concept of auteurs and that the best films are ones in which we can feel the personal vision and personality of the filmmaker in every frame, “Lady Bird” is elevated far above other enjoyable coming-of-age stories because it is clearly comes from a distinct voice. That the film’s rhythms and personality fit so nicely with Gerwig’s unique screen presence as an actress only strengthens this sense of a handcrafted film and the arrival of a fully formed, mature filmmaker.
Take the film’s opening: Driving home from visiting colleges, Lady Bird (Ronan) and her mother (Metcalf) share a cry at the conclusion of their book on tape, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Ronan’s “I wish I could live through something” line prompts an epic, but we assume common, mother-daughter fight — introducing the family’s financial situation and Lady Bird’s desire to go to school in New York — and it concludes with her jumping out of the moving car while her mother screams in horror behind the steering wheel. Cut to Lady Bird in her school’s chapel with a cast on her arm. An upbeat, but intentionally ordinary and toned-down track from composer Jon Brion fills the soundtrack.
The order of events is something that might make sense in a Pedro Almodovar or Wes Anderson film, yet Gerwig’s filmmaking possesses none of Almodovar’s stylized zaniness or Anderson’s diorama artifice. She plays it straight. Gerwig juxtaposes moments like this throughout the film, certainly sometimes for a laugh, but never with hint of irony or remove. Over the Brion track, what follows is a deceptively breezy montage that, in just a few minutes, amusingly introduces us to over a dozen significant characters and another 15 relationships. This accomplishment from an exposition standpoint is mind boggling, but it is thoroughly entertaining and more importantly visually introduces us to major conflicts — the cause of unspoken tension with her best friend, Lady Bird’s uneasy relationship with religion, and many more — that resonate and deepen as the film unspools.
This is Howard Hawks-level work. Gerwig is driving 200mph around hairpin turns, humming a song and making it look and feel like a stroll in the park. “Lady Bird” is every inch as painstakingly planned out and precise in its complexity as “Dunkirk,” but without an inch of the directorial flex. To say this is mostly Gerwig’s incredible script is to ignore the tradition — from Billy Wilder to Noah Baumbach — of directors who constantly rewrite until they find unique ways to balance dramatic truth and comedy. For them, the script is like sheet music for the song playing in their head, which are tuned so every note is perfected before being taken to collaborators who must be conducted to play the same piece of music.
Casting isn’t simply matching character and actor; they are instruments of cadence and tone. What’s fascinating with “Lady Bird” is this isn’t Woody Allen, with performers who embody the idiosyncrasies of the director’s onscreen persona. Nor is it Preston Sturges or early Coen Brothers, where a stable of regular players bring a uniform, stylized performance to the film. From the somber quiet of Tracy Lett’s depressive father faded in the background, to the eye-roll inducing too-cool-for-school Timothée Chalamet, each performance is individual and surprisingly distinct in its tone, and yet Gerwig never loses the thread of this complex piece.
The other aspect of honoring the script and performances of “Lady Bird,” but not the direction, is that it indicates a casualness of the use of form, with the camera that simply capturing actors delivering their lines. However, Gerwig gave “Lady Bird” a true sense of a proscenium. This is not a film that invites us inside, giving us the unfettered handheld access of an indie, but rather finds — not easy, shooting on location — precise and determined frames for the viewer to look in, like a window. Intentionally, it’s not dripping with visuals, but there was painstaking work that went into creating the nostalgic look to the film’s texture and color palette. The film feels like it was printed on slightly colored paper and scanned back to film (although shot digitally) in way that becomes this loving postcard to Sacramento in 2003.
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Barry Jenkins said something a while back, before directing “Moonlight,” about his favorite directors, that is apt to this discussion.
“I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but I’ve always felt like I can tell the difference when I’m watching a film directed by a woman,” said Jenkins. “I just feel like the metaphors are more eloquent, by which I mean they don’t shout as much. Even for myself, when I try to make a movie with a message, it’s clear I’m trying to make a movie with a message, whereas when I watch a Lynne Ramsay film or a Claire Denis film, it’s the metaphors you can feel — Lucrecia Martel, especially.”
I don’t know that I agree that there is fundamental differences in directing style based on gender and Jenkins himself isn’t capable of this type of filmmaking, nor that there aren’t female directors don’t hit the audiences over the head. However, it highlights the emphasis and celebration on what has become in Hollywood a distinctly masculine definition of what is good direction. Jenkins describes Denis — his favorite director and the one who clearly has most informed him as a filmmaker — as a “nuts and bolts” director. And while Gerwig is nothing like Denis or Jenkins as a storyteller, it’s an apt description of her work with “Lady Bird.”
Upon second and third viewings of “Lady Bird,” the film’s eloquent metaphors powerfully emerge from the enjoyable surfaces and dead-accurate portrayal (or so I’m told by literally every women in my orbit) of daughters and mothers. Whereas it is easy to summarize what the other best film contenders are about (the directors have explained that themselves, and to be honest this is truly one thing they are far better at than Gerwig), “Lady Bird” is like a piece of music that soulfully resonates on deeper levels every time you listen to it.
It is a competitive year, and like many people I struggled delineating the differences in quality between “Lady Bird,” “Get Out,” Call Me By Your Name,” “Shape of Water,” “Dunkirk,” and a host of other quality films in creating a year-end Top 10 list. But if you believe “Lady Bird” deserves a nomination, you should confidently and proudly vote for Gerwig as director as well.