Some may say it started with Lady Bird or 2016’s 20th Century Women, but I maintain that the first time we fully saw the Greta Gerwig we know and love today is in 2012’s quirky, subtle, and vastly underrated Frances Ha.
Although Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut didn’t arrive until 2017, there are plenty of places where you can go back and see her preparing for the big splash of A24’s Lady Bird. Gerwig got her career started as an actor, but this didn’t last all too long on its own, as she started stepping into roles with more creative control relatively early in her career.
From her splitting directorial credit with Joe Swanberg on 2008’s Nights and Weekends to penning the screenplay for Frances Ha alongside now-husband Noah Baumbach, she waded her way into the director’s chair carefully in order to produce curatively-crafted masterpieces that catch Academy attention on the first try.
However, this isn’t a guarantee. In fact, when 2019’s Little Women was thought to be an Oscar given, Gerwig was snubbed for the Best Director nomination, even after being one of the only female directors to ever receive the nomination for Lady Bird. About this, she even commented, “I think that the director’s branch could probably stand to bolster its lady numbers.”
Regardless of awards, nominations, or accolades, her career is an interesting one to examine. Currently, at work on the new Barbie movie, Gerwig’s choices in terms of narrative as well as style might almost seem puzzling at first glance. Since her start, she has worked with softer, overtly feminized undertakings, often of the indie-darling variety, and it’s worked for her a great deal.
We can see this clearly in Frances Ha. Set in New York and shot entirely in black and white, this film delivered on something that we didn’t know we needed: an artfully-delivered and wistfully romantic film in the flavour of Woody Allen’s (yikes) Manhattan, but without everything in it that aged horribly (which is nearly everything). Following the life of a somewhat lost modern dancer in her search for satisfaction in life, what Greta managed to do both with her acting and writing was bring long-appreciated artistic simplicity to women’s voices—I say “voices” because the film is filled with complex and intimate dynamics with the other female characters.
This paved the way for films like Lady Bird and her take on Little Women. Greta Gerwig is pioneering American cinema because although she is here to uplift women’s voices, her primary method of doing so is simply pursuing art that’s meaningful to her. Lady Bird is her personal love letter to her hometown. And Gerwig’s ability to create a signature style that still flexes with versatility aids in the pursuit of making that revolutionary.
Part of what makes Gerwig so distinct isn’t the women-led stories or the willingness to look in unexpected directions (like making a period piece about 2002 or shooting an otherwise-modern film in black and white by choice), although details like that certainly make her stand out. Really, what sets her apart is her ability to write and direct with an emotive authenticity and offer the opportunity to relate to a wide variety of people.
Directors like Sofia Coppola, Andrea Arnold, Ari Aster, the Safdie brothers, and Catherine Hardwicke do this, too. Everybody has a main demographic because that is part of what shows the identity of one’s filmmaking, but bleeding out and transcending it is another skill entirely, and Greta Gerwig has all but mastered it.