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Spotlight: Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig is probably still best known to most for her flawless lead performance in 2013’s Frances Ha, though she has far more strings to her bow than the charmingly clumsy, down-on-her-luck Frances. As well as bringing life to this loveable character, Gerwig co-wrote the film’s screenplay with her partner, director Noah Baumbach. Ahead of the pair’s third creative collaboration Mistress America, out Friday, we take a look at the highlights of Gerwig’s varied career so far.

On the release of Frances Ha, Gerwig was dubbed ‘the Meryl Streep of mumblecore’, due to her association with the low-budget, improv-heavy indies by directors including the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg. In the mid-to-late noughties, meeting Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) led to Gerwig’s early turns in LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends. But she was never just an actress; during her involvement in the mumblecore scene, Gerwig picked up several screenwriting credits, though last week in The Guardian she distanced herself from this style of filmmaking, saying “I’m so grateful for the experience, but I was always more interested in the script as a piece of writing, as opposed to just shooting improv and finding the film in the edit”.

Perhaps as a result of this reservation, Gerwig’s projects after her break with mumblecore offer a drastic contrast, particularly Russell Brand vehicle Arthur and the forgettable sex-com-turned-straight-up-rom-com No Strings Attached. Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher lead a tension-free predictable march from friends-with-benefits to mooning lovers, but No Strings Attached is surprisingly bursting with an awesome supporting cast, including Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Mindy Kaling and, of course, Greta Gerwig.

Gerwig is cast in an archetypal role best exemplified by Carrie Fisher in Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally; the friend of the female lead whose burgeoning relationship overtakes that of the central will-they-won’t-they couple. And as with Fisher in the earlier film, Gerwig proves to be a scene-stealer. With her tongue-in-cheek delivery she creates many of the film’s best one-liners. Her incredulous “How do I what?” in response to a prissy girl’s “how do you do” is enough to make you splutter with laughter in a silent library. In this most unlikely of films, the charisma Gerwig is celebrated for today is plainly making its mark on an underwritten character.

After the commercialism of Arthur and No Strings Attached, Gerwig found her sweet spot in Whit Stillman’s low-profile Damsels in Distress. Gerwig is Violet, an immaculately postured old soul stuck in a modern day faux-Ivy League college. In Gerwig’s hands Violet is both delicately hilarious and hilariously delicate; she achieves a dazzling level of sincerity in delivering Violet’s often extremely self-analytical or opinionated remarks. Quite rightly, there is a rehearsed quality to this delivery, which serves to highlight the film’s preoccupation with the various forms of affectation being paraded on the fictional college campus.

Although Gerwig is a fine comic actress, this is by no means a limiting factor. Many of her roles have been in dramas which incorporate quirky humour, often into the characterisation itself, rather than more straightforward comedies. She’s more than capable of provoking empathy in a variety of situations; as the hapless Frances sleeping through her fleeting trip to Paris, an enormously pregnant woman navigating New York summer heat in last month’s Eden, and as the sidelined girlfriend in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love.

Slightly gawky earlier roles allowed Gerwig to hone her laudable Frances persona, and one such example is 2010’s Greenberg, her first collaboration with Baumbach. Greenberg is an odd film without a clear protagonist. Although the promotional material suggests it’s Ben Stiller’s titular 40-something, who’s going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, the opening makes Gerwig’s Florence most prominent, often framing her in closeup as she drives around conducting various errands for the wealthy Greenberg family.

As an extremely capable PA, Florence is in some ways the anti-Frances, throwing Stiller’s stalled and less sympathetic Greenberg into relief. Bafflingly, Florence appears to find him endearing, or at least interesting, and her instant affability causes you to leave the film feeling you’ve been hanging out with a good friend you’ve known for years.

This quality in Gerwig’s naturalistic performances is also found in 2012’s Lola Versus, which can be described as Frances Ha-lite, or an extended episode of Girls. Gerwig is the eponymous Lola, who spends the movie self-consciously and self-indulgently reeling from her breakup with her fiancé. Unlike in Frances Ha, Lola isn’t likeable enough to overcome a threadbare plot, though Gerwig makes you cringe in all the right places.

At the other end of the spectrum is The Last Act, an Al Pacino-starring adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel The Humbling, released straight to DVD last year. Pacino is an aging actor recovering from an on-stage breakdown. After his release from an unspecified institution, he’s visited by the now grown-up goddaughter he hasn’t seen in years (Gerwig). Pegeen is actually the more interesting character, yet the film’s very masculine perspective ensures she’s always kept tantalisingly at a distance. Pegeen, an apparent lesbian, is nebulous and chameleonic, and soon starts an affair with Pacino’s Simon. Although Barry Levinson’s film does its best to convince us of Simon’s ultimate view – that Pegeen is some sort of life-destroying monster – Gerwig’s low-key yet multi-faceted performance is likely to win your allegiance.

Most recently, Gerwig appeared in Mia Hansen-Løve’s underrated Eden as a sometime girlfriend of the protagonist, wannabe mega-DJ Paul (Félix de Givry). Gerwig proved she’s just as at home in a Parisian apartment as a New York one, and excelled at playing her character at various points in her life, as the narrative demanded. This Friday though, it’s back to her spiritual homeland on the streets of NYC in Mistress America.

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