Why ‘Lady Bird’ Should Win Best Picture
The following essay contains SPOILERS for Lady Bird.
By any measure, Lady Bird is one of the most beloved movies of 2017. It received Best Picture accolades from the Golden Globes, the American Film Institute, and the New York Film Critics Circle. On Rotten Tomatoes, it’s one of the best-reviewed movies in history. It’s already earned $43 million in theaters, making it the biggest hit in the history of distributor A24.
So of course it has almost no shot of winning the Academy Award Best Picture.
That’s at least what the experts who make their living predicting the Oscars say. Awards Circuit has the film in third place for Best Picture behind The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Using something called “math,” FiveThirtyEight came to the same conclusion. Gold Derby polled 19 Oscar pundits and only one thinks Lady Bird will win the top prize. The implication: Lady Bird is lovely but not an “Oscar movie.” It’s not about a great man who changed the world, or a famous battle in military history, or a parable about racism in America. It may be moving and funny, but it is not “important” or “bold” or “groundbreaking.”
Maybe it’s not. Writer/director Greta Gerwig isn’t the first filmmaker to tell this sort of story; she’s not even the first to tell it from a woman’s perspective (although the vast majority of high school and coming of age movies are from a man’s point-of-view). Still, many people — including some of the film’s fans — are selling Lady Bird short. Even as they admire its performances and dialogue, they overlook its subtle but effective visual aesthetic and narrative structure. Too many viewers have dismissed a movie that is hard to make simply because Gerwig made it look so effortless.
This is something that happens often come Oscar season. The movies with flashy camera moves and long takes are hailed as “visionary” while those that use more nuanced shades wind up getting called “bland” and not directed “interestingly.” A few years ago, some writers were upset with Spotlight’s nomination for Best Director. And while it’s true that Lady Bird doesn’t have the visual scope or pyrotechnics of some of its competitors in the Best Picture category, that doesn’t mean it’s poorly directed.
The very first shot of Lady Bird, for example, instantly establishes a visual motif that is repeated throughout the film. The camera is placed on the ceiling, looking directly down on Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) lying together in bed.
Gerwig will return to this framing throughout Lady Bird. There’s a very similar shot of the title character while she munches on Communion wafers with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein):
And again, when Lady Bird is on a date with her first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges):
And again, when Lady Bird commiserates with Julie after discovering Danny is secretly gay:
All of these overhead two-shots suggest the presence of a higher power observing all of the film’s events, which in turn reinforces Lady Bird’s religious’ subtext. Lady Bird isn’t a particularly spiritual woman; as her mother notes several times over the course of the movie, she’s only going to Catholic high school because her older brother witnessed a stabbing at his public high school. Throughout the film, Lady Bird is hardly a model Catholic. She steals a teacher’s grade book, lies about her test scores, smokes marijuana, and has premarital sex. Nonetheless, at the end of the film, Lady Bird finds herself questioning a boy who claims he doesn’t believe in God, and then finds comfort in church after a particularly bad night of drinking.
At this point, Lady Bird has started going by her real name, Christine, again, underscoring another way in which those two-shots are important: They’re a visual manifestation of the film’s structure, which is entirely about pairs — like the title character’s two names. Lady Bird is set over the course of two high school semesters stretched across two calendar years. It features two school dances (homecoming and prom). There are two school plays (Merrily We Roll Along and The Tempest). The lead character has two different boyfriends. She has two best friends. She goes to two different house parties. She goes to two different churches. She has two different options for college (UC Davis and an unnamed private school in New York that’s pretty clearly NYU). And she has strikingly different relationships with her two parents.
Appropriately, Lady Bird’s story has just two acts instead of the three typical of most Hollywood movies. And there are visual pairs as well, like the montage early in the film where Lady Bird and Julie walk through one of Sacramento’s wealthier neighborhoods:
...which rhymes with the montage late in the film where Christine wanders through Manhattan after her visit to the hospital.
Gerwig’s repeated use of two-shots makes the best scene in Lady Bird even better; the moment when Lady Bird’s mother Marion breaks down after dropping her daughter off at the airport for her flight to college. Marion’s still angry that Lady Bird applied to East Coast schools behind her back. She gives an excuse about parking and heightened security after 9/11, and drives off. At that moment, Gerwig cuts to a close-up of Metcalf’s face — one of the tightest close-ups in the film — emphasizing the character’s isolation and loneliness after she’s sent her only daughter off to college without even giving her a hug.
Marion is kind of a pair all by herself; in one of Lady Bird’s more memorable scenes, Danny describes her as both scary and warm. And that is what Lady Bird and those two-shots are ultimately all about; seeing that everyone has multiple sides, and that what they appear to be is a construction forged through a lot of trial and error. They can be scary and warm, or outwardly pompous while quietly struggling with the death of a parent. You can hate your hometown, and feel nostalgic for it after you’ve left. The Lady Bird (or Christine) we see in that final scene is the sum total of all the choices that brought her to that point. No one is just one thing.
The same goes for movies. Even if Lady Bird gets shut out on Oscar night, it will be remembered as a great — and extremely well-directed — film.
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