Natalie Portman on ‘Lady Bird’: ‘I’ve Wanted to See This Movie for the Past 20 Years’

Two weeks after putting the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. on notice for producing an all-male lineup of best director Golden Globe nominees, actress (and director in her own right) Natalie Portman sang the praises of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” in Hollywood Thursday night.

“I just want to say, I’m so grateful for this movie,” the 36-year-old Oscar winner said of her “Jackie” and “No Strings Attached” co-star’s awards-season success story. “I’ve wanted to see this movie for the past 20 years and it hasn’t existed. I’ve been waiting for it. It’s just magic.”

The discussion, a post-screening Q&A in front of an audience of Academy and guild members, ranged from Gerwig’s broad influences (the work of Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, and Carole Lombard) to her specific ones (Northern California artist Wayne Thiebaud and John Huston’s Stockton, Calif.-set “Fat City,” which were heavy influences on the look of “Lady Bird”).

In particular, Gerwig noted the impact female filmmakers like Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman, and Mia Hansen-Løve have had on her outlook in the profession. She referenced movies like Denis’ “Beau Travail” and Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels” as formative.

“I didn’t know how many [female filmmakers] there were and I didn’t know how important it was, but even though I didn’t want to make works like that, it sparked something in me and led to me going, ‘I need to do this,'” Gerwig said. “I think women tend to focus on stories that men don’t have the privilege of seeing, particularly things that are domestic. ‘Jeanne Dielman,’ so much of that movie is static shots of her doing housework. Chantal Akerman said that is the lowest on the totem pole of cinema language; we value the image of a woman doing anything else besides housework. There was something about that intimacy with making dinner or making a bed that was really interesting to me. It felt like there was this whole world left to be explored that had been largely undocumented.”

She also noted Marielle Heller’s 2015 film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which she saw when she was casting “Lady Bird” and which really spoke to her in terms of depicting a young woman with dimension and complexity.

“When I saw it I was like, ‘That’s it. She’s right,'” Gerwig said. “I feel like allowing a young woman to experience desires and not just utterly punching them for it is weirdly not that common. Lady Bird is so inside of her own desires and able to be the active person in her own life. She’s not ever waiting to be looked at; she’s the one doing the looking. Even when it’s misguided and even when she messes up and fails, it’s not disallowed.”

This sparked a memory in Portman of seeing Heller’s film with a male artist friend. Someone asked them later what the movie was about, and her friend said it was about a nymphomaniac. “I was like, ‘What?’ It was just about a girl with normal desires,” Portman said. “But it was so foreign [to him], and he had, like, diagnosed it!”

There are plenty of men who have influenced Gerwig, she said, name-checking Mike Leigh specifically. “But for some reason,” she said, “movies directed by women have all these vivid moments that I can point to and say, ‘Oh, she knows.'”

The entire discussion, naturally, was on-brand for an awards campaign that is and has been focused on a woman’s perspective of a woman’s story, as well as the push for more of the same in the industry. The 34-year-old Gerwig became the ninth woman to receive a nomination from the Directors Guild of America last week, and she could become just the fifth woman to be recognized by the Academy’s directors branch when Oscar nominations are revealed Tuesday, Jan. 23. (That would also, incidentally, make her the fourth-youngest director ever nominated.)

Elsewhere in the conversation, Gerwig dug deep on the minutiae she wanted to convey in her film, influenced in some ways by the Maysles brothers documentary “Grey Gardens” and its depiction of the repetition inherent in family structures. She also conveyed some sage advice she received from her Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright star Tracy Letts on the film.

“I was questioning something I wrote and he said, ‘You have to trust the person you were when you wrote it, because you’re actually not that person anymore,'” she recalled. “‘Now you’re directing it, and that’s a different job.'”

On that note, one of the audience questions — pre-written and submitted prior to the Q&A — came from a young woman asking for suggestions in embarking on a filmmaking career. Gerwig started by noting that the tools available to upstart filmmakers are considerable. “So much is possible right now,” she said. She also suggested finding like minds. “Find the people who hate the same things you do,” she said with a giggle. “It’s good to go, ‘When I’m in charge, I’m never going to do that.’ It gives you a kind of fire. When you’re 20 you should hate a lot of stuff.”

Most importantly, her independent spirit really ignited as she painted a picture of casual rebellion against the status quo.

“Sometimes you can get real fixated on going through the front door of the castle, but you don’t always need to,” she said. “You can sometimes go through a side door. Sometimes you don’t even need to go in. You can just set up a camp outside and have your own party. I think more often than not, that’s what it ends up being.”

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