For Laurie Metcalf in 'Lady Bird,' this is the moment for her kind of honesty
By CHRIS JONES | Chicago Tribune | Published: November 20, 2017
There's a scene in "Lady Bird," this fall's remarkable coming-of-age movie by Greta Gerwig, where the title character, a complicated Sacramento 17-year-old encapsulated by Saoirse Ronan, finds herself in the dressing room of an off-price clothing store with her mother, Marion McPherson, who happens to be played by Laurie Metcalf.
Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson comes out with a new dress. She just wants to be told by her mom that she looks nice. She understands that her mom loves her and wants the best for her, but she also wants to be liked. For herself.
Even if the best she ever will be is standing right here, in this imperfect dress.
Gerwig's camera lingers on Metcalf's visage as Marion ponders her daughter's charged request with furrowed brow. On its face, it's a simple demand for a daughter to make of her mother, but since our ability to change our stripes diminishes with age, and since the relationship of liking to loving is far more complicated than teenagers typically realize, it's actually an impossible request for this woman to fulfill. Her daughter is just too young to understand why.
Gerwig is painting on a familiar Hollywood canvas: the final year of high school, when movies believe that we all grow up and find ourselves within the trajectory of two semesters and one gutsy plane trip to college in a big city that's preferably New York. But, with Metcalf's help, she's actually created a character of near-tragic heft. She has forged a woman unable to change, for she knows that if she changes even a smidgen, everything will unravel.
Metcalf's Marion is like Javert from "Les Miserables." Only a struggling mom working double shifts to feed her family.
"You want me to lie?" Marion asks, staring back at her Lady Bird, unblinking all the while.
Well, no. We don't ever want Laurie Metcalf to lie.
That would be terrible.
All across the years, at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, on Broadway most recently in "A Doll's House, Part 2," in television in roles that never required her to break a sweat, and now, finally, in a woman-centered film that seems likely to be bathed in praise come awards time, Metcalf never was seen to lie. Even when she been at the center of something poorly written or conceived _ and there have been a few examples _ veracity always has been her hallmark.
Suddenly, this is a prized quality at this moment of American duplicitousness, confession and revelation.
Metcalf was before her time. But surely her time is here.
Her heft is well-known in Chicago, where she always has been an actress' stage actress, the feminist counterpuncher to all those aggressive Steppenwolf men. "I think everyone wants to be Laurie Metcalf," Amy Morton, no slouch herself, has been heard to say.
But Metcalf's long stint on television's "Roseanne" meant that her national reputation has been as a comic player or, at the most, as a maverick.
In "Lady Bird," Metcalf finally has a script and a director who can reveal what we've long known in Chicago. This is a supporting performance and a character etched without the benefit of copious amounts of screen-time. It is the antagonist, not the name on the marquee. But it is still a singular opportunity grabbed by Metcalf in a way we've never quite seen on a screen.
"Lady Bird," which was cast by the gifted Heidi Griffiths of the New York Public Theater, is a fascinating film for Steppenwolf watchers. Marion's husband (and Lady Bird's dad) is played by Tracy Letts, here rendered surprisingly benign. You could see his character, Larry McPherson, as an atrophied version of the lower-middle-class patriarchy of the early aughts.
Out of work and unsure of where to put himself, Letts' Larry remains a loving dad. There is great empathy in the man that Gerwig has penned: a scene in which we see him vie for the same job as his adopted son is deeply moving, and yet this persona still seems like a meditation on the sorry state of American manhood. It's also a much better fit for Letts than most of the roles he has been offered before.
What Gerwig has done for Letts puts you in mind, weirdly, of what Sofia Coppola did for Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation." She peels away the expectations for a man that were held by other men. And the man thus becomes free to be true.
To the best of my knowledge, "Lady Bird" is only the second mainstream Hollywood movie with three Steppenwolf ensemble members in its cast (the first was "Of Mice and Men" in 1992). Lois Smith is there too, playing a nun who teaches the title character. As with everything else about this film, Smith's Sister Sarah Joan represent an honest accounting of matriarchal Catholic pedagogy in the 1990s: in no way a repudiation of traditional values, but still empowering in its complexity and compassion.
That's why the most common response to "Lady Bird" is recognition. You don't have to be 17, or female, or anything in particular, really. You just need an appetite for some truths about youth as it is remembered: you know, after you gain more insight into how your parents were dealing with their own stuff as they dealt with you.
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