Happy birthday, Greta Gerwig! Today, I am very excited to have the opportunity to write on a fellow Barnard alum, the fastest rising star directing today, and the woman of the summer.
Greta was born in Sacramento, California on August 4, 1983. After graduating from St. Francis High School, a Catholic girls’ school, in 2002, she moved to New York City to study at Barnard College, the women’s school of Columbia University. Active in the theater scene on campus, Greta participated in the Varsity Show alongside fellow Columbia grad, Kate McKinnon.
During her final year at Barnard, Greta appeared in director Joe Swanberg’s film LOL. This would be the start of a successful collaboration with Joe; Greta even went on to co-write Joe’s next film, in which she also starred, Hannah Takes the Stairs. The pair also co-wrote, co-directed, and both starred in Nights and Weekends in 2008. Though only having recently graduated from college, Greta was already creating a name for herself in the entertainment industry. During this time early in her career, she also worked with directors such as Ry Russo-Young, Mark and Jay Duplass, and Ti West.
In 2010, Greta starred alongside Ben Stiller in Greenberg, a film by Noah Baumbach, Greta’s eventual partner. Afterwards, Greta and Noah co-wrote the script for Frances Ha together. Released in 2013, Frances Ha stars Greta as a hopelessly lost twenty-something living in New York City. It’s a beautiful film, and it quickly hit me in the gut both as a Woody Allen fan (who the film clearly takes inspiration from) and as a hopelessly lost eighteen year old freshly moved to New York City.
Lady Bird is delicate while at the same time fiery—a lived-in portrayal of the complexities of girlhood.
Though Greta had proven herself to be an extremely talented writer and actress, she had not yet directed alone until Ladybird in 2017. The hit film, written and directed by Greta and starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, and Timothee Chalamet, is largely inspired by Greta’s own experiences as an adolescent in California. Ladybird stands as a stunning achievement for Greta. It is delicate while at the same time fiery—a lived-in portrayal of the complexities of girlhood which works so well due to its personal nature and yet universal appeal. It was nominated for five Academy Awards and won the Golden Globe for both best actress and best film.
Greta’s next foray into directing came with 2019’s Little Women, which stars Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and many more very talented actors. In her review of the film, FF2 contributor Amelie Lasker calls Greta brave for working with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, as it is unquestionably material “so close to people’s hearts.” Greta’s bravery paid off in full, as the film was released to overwhelming critical acclaim. The love for Little Women does come in part from the public’s attachment to the original source material, but can be also directly tied to Greta’s directorial choices, such as her inspired, feminist ending for Jo’s character as well clever editing and the decision to shoot the film on location, which beautifully differentiates it from the modern, green-screen monstrosities to which the public has grown accustomed. However, Greta herself was snubbed at the Academy Awards when the academy overlooked her for a Best Director nomination—one she very rightfully deserved. No women were nominated for Best Director that year.
Perhaps just as much a pop culture phenomenon as a film, it is hard to express the level of success that Barbie brings both to Gerwig and to post-COVID cinema.
Greta’s most recent success of course comes from Barbie. Perhaps just as much a pop culture phenomenon as a film, it is hard to express the level of success that Barbie brings both to Gerwig and to post-COVID cinema. Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, and a cast packed with countless other powerhouses, Barbie now represents the biggest debut in film history for a woman director, and perhaps also a defining moment for women audiences—being a studio film truly made by and for them. The message of Barbie, on and off screen, is one of hot pink girl power.
I know that some fans of Greta were disappointed by Barbie. In FF2 collaborator Hannah Lamb-Vine’s review of the film, she brings up important questions about the intentions and delivery of such a studio film. I agree with Hannah that Barbie did veer at times too far into its plastic, mainstream world. It’s true that Barbie lacks some of the trademark Greta Gerwig style that we have come to love. Barbie was large, and it imposed itself, and, yes, it was studio and, therefore, capitalistic. However, I can’t be upset that Greta has chosen the path of a studio director. Almost no woman is given that chance. Greta herself was not given that opportunity. She took it. Even through being overlooked or snubbed, she forced Hollywood to give her a seat at the table. When I miss her earlier work, I’ll rewatch it. I’m just thankful I have someone at that table. Especially someone who can create such a perfect, comforting comedy and craft a vivid world from the ground up.
My relationship to Greta’s work has evolved alongside her career. From being fourteen years old and seeing Ladybird alongside my mother (DO NOT RECOMMEND) to being invited to a film major’s messy dorm to watch Frances Ha my freshman fall (DO NOT RECOMMEND IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO CRY), I think the only constant which has stuck in the relationship between Greta and me is discomfort. Her work, at its best (or at my favorite of it), makes me uncomfortable due to its relatability. There is an army of young women (many of them residing between 110 and 120 street on the Upper West Side) who have come to view Greta Gerwig as their own patron saint. She succeeded, she accomplished the unaccomplishable through talent and ceaseless hard work. Maybe we’ve got a chance, too.
In my first writing workshop I took at Barnard, I received a note that I will always carry with me. In the margins of a short story, a classmate had written, “You remind me of Greta Gerwig.” It’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.
© Reese Alexander (8/4/23) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Hannah Lamb-Vine’s personal take on Barbie here.
Read Brigid K. Presecky’s review of Little Women here.
Read Nicole Ackman’s review of Little Women here.
Read Amelie Lasker’s review of Lady Bird here.
And here is FF2 EIC Jan Lisa Huttner’s 2013 rant about Frances Ha. Reading it now (almost exactly 10 years later), this rant provides some context on Greta’s evolution from actress, to co-screenwriter, to screenwriter/director from the POV of a second-wave feminist. (PS from Jan: Please note that when I said THIS “Gerwig is way too big and clumsy,” I was complaining about Noah Baumbach’s direction, not Greta Gerwig’s on screen presence.)
Visit Greta Gerwig’s Wikipedia page here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: BARBIE – LA PRESS JUNKET PHOTO CALL JUNE 25, 2023 – Director/Writer Greta Gerwig attends the BARBIE Press Junket Photo Call at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA – Photo by Eric Charbonneau. © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Bottom Photo: (L-R) MARGOT ROBBIE, ALEXANDRA SHIPP, MICHAEL CERA, Director/Writer GRETA GERWIG (foreground), AMERICA FERRERA and ARIANA GREENBLATT on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BARBIE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (PRESS KIT). Photo by Jaap Buitendijk. © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.