Rob Edelman: Greta

These days, Greta Gerwig is all over movie screens. She recently has been seen in LOLA VERSUS, and Whit Stillman’s latest, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, and Woody Allen’s latest, TO ROME WITH LOVE. (I must add here that, in these parts, any new Woody Allen film-- good, bad, or indifferent-- is well worth a look-see.) Anyway, what is so appealing about Greta Gerwig is her naturalistic screen presence. She is at ease in front of the camera and, once that camera rolls, it does not seem as if she is acting. She is just, well... being her character.

Physically, Gerwig is no classic all-American beauty. In other words, she does not resemble one-too-many picture-pretty Hollywood starlets. She looks more like your next door neighbor, or the girl who lives down the street or, given her age and appearance, the girl who sits next to you in your English or history class. Still, there is something special about her. I cannot define what that is, but it is there and, when Gerwig is onscreen, you cannot stop watching her.

In a general way, Greta Gerwig has come to embody the contemporary late-teen or twentysomething woman who either is trying to find her way in the world and sort out relationships or is way beyond her years in that she has a strong sense of who she is and what she wants.

Clearly, given her recent credits, Gerwig is entering the Hollywood mainstream. But her earliest work is in the independent sector, and one particular film comes to mind when examining Gerwig’s celluloid roots. That film is HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, which was released in 2007. Gerwig plays the title character, who drifts from man to man and relationship to relationship. 

As another character observes, Hannah is “chronically dissatisfied.” Is it that she is too fickle, or perhaps too demanding of her men? Or is it that one-too-many of these men are preoccupied with obsessively clowning around and trying to grasp onto the last vestiges of their childhoods? Meanwhile, Hannah just may be, in her own inarticulate way, looking for an emotional commitment that her boyfriends are unable to provide.

HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS is worth a look for anyone interested in seeing a certain type of contemporary independent film, one that is purposefully ragged, improvisational, and character-driven. But given her more recent screen presence, one senses that Greta Gerwig no longer will be appearing in such ultra-low-budget cinematic fare.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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