Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson — better known as “Lady Bird,” wife of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States — finally gets recognition at the movies this week. Two new films, LBJ and Lady Bird, unexpectedly remind us that Lady Bird’s lack of political aggression left a gracious cultural imprint. Amid daily Hollywood sordidness, the memory of Lady Bird’s “Beautify America” project, connected to Johnson’s signing the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, is almost restorative.
In LBJ, Jennifer Jason Leigh cannily portrays Lady Bird so that the southern accent and wifely modesty (squeezing sweetness out of “darlin’” and “honey”) are a reproof of the moralizing, fashion-plate activism that have recently defined the first-lady position. Leigh goes against the militant archetype that the fawning media have recently assigned to FLOTUS status and now renege; the quietly confident femininity Leigh embodies belonged to a time before such traits were questioned and undermined. Leigh adds to our memories of Lady Bird the power of personal eccentricity that made Leigh the finest American film actress of the 1990s.
Leigh’s concentration on Lady Bird’s reserve — the shrewd way she stays in the background yet protects her husband’s ego and soothes the uncertainty that he reveals only to her — is the most daringly original performance of a female political figure since Thandie Newton’s striking, apprehensive Condoleezza Rice in W.
But LBJ isn’t a satire like Oliver Stone’s serious lampoon of a political scion. It’s something less — and weirder. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone memorialize Johnson while steering away from the Vietnam War issue that still fuels liberal hatred of LBJ. This quasi-counternarrative exposes a fissure in left-wing sentimentality. It’s obvious that Reiner made LBJ in response to Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), which demeaned Johnson as a begrudging participant in the civil-rights movement.
In the war between political hacks so typical of this divided era, Reiner defends Johnson against DuVernay’s racist historical revisionism — Reiner gives proper weight to Johnson’s signing the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Yes, Woody Harrelson is disastrously made-up so that Johnson’s hairline and ears resemble Richard Nixon’s, suggesting either the filmmaker’s sloppiness or his subconscious ambivalence. Still, LBJ resurrects Johnson’s political integrity to show what DuVernay’s Black Lives Matter opportunism ignores and what today’s Democratic party has mummified.
After Leigh’s performance, the film is most interesting for its focus on Johnson’s effectiveness as a dealmaker. (His first distinction is declaring the practical difference between “show-horse and workhorse” politicians.) The film centers on the Beltway intrigue following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which boosted Vice President Johnson into the role of commander-in-chief. Then it takes up the precarious issue of racial politics, which Johnson grasps prophetically: “We’ll have negroes voting Democrat for the next 200 years.”
LBJ recognizes the ethics of men who, though born into an outmoded culture, could be honest about racism because they’re basically honorable and decent.
The ambivalence here is part of Reiner’s unsophisticated emphasis on Johnson’s bluntness. He’s seen saying, “I’m what they call well-endowed — pecker to bunghole” and worse vulgarities. (Imagine Reiner’s daring to show Obama smoking or on the commode.) Ambivalence continues in Reiner’s depiction of Democratic-party elites, especially Bobby Kennedy and his snotty Harvard cronies, implying that the Kennedy charisma was a dubious political asset.
As with Lady Bird’s outdated femininity, Reiner winds up honoring Johnson’s institutional savvy and political forthrightness. (His Ted Sorensen–scripted speech — taking off from JFK’s “Let us begin . . . ” to say, “Let us continue . . . ” — makes fairly moving rhetoric.) LBJ recognizes the ethics of men who, though born into an outmoded culture, could be honest about racism because they’re basically honorable and decent. This third-rate but expedient film regrets the decency we’ve lost and that Reiner is nostalgic for, even though he never displays it in his current public “resistance.”
Actress Greta Gerwig might be ignorant of political history, but I like to think that her directorial debut Lady Bird is a sensible tribute to the spirit of Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson. After all, female sensibility is her film’s subject as embodied by Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who is ready to embark upon the world as an independent young woman. The film’s conflicts are surprisingly touching. Gerwig (who also wrote the script) uses her own biography as a German-Irish native of Sacramento, Calif., to depict an American girl who, like Leigh’s Lady Bird, realizes that cultural turmoil is no less difficult than simply trying to maintain oneself.
As director, Gerwig maps out teenage biases, family conflicts, social status, and romantic longing more clearly than any of the films she has acted in did (except Whit Stillman’s fantasy Damsels in Distress). As with her monologue in Mistress America (2015), we get suddenly tender insights into private embarrassment; these are traceable to the all-American terror of underappreciating your class origins — which she may have learned from Stillman. Gerwig doesn’t reach the emotional depth of Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams, but she tries.
Christine defiantly calls herself “Lady Bird,” a self-conscious admission of her yearning to fly. Gerwig upgrades the teen realism of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles. She must also have seen the TV series Roseanne, since she cast the intense Laurie Metcalf as the mother Christine always combats. Ronan doesn’t mesh with Metcalf as a young American actress might, yet Ronan has a plus: She brings to mind the young Vanessa Redgrave’s prodigious intelligence that turns girlishness into womanliness. An unacknowledged moral dilemma plays out as Christine fumbles through adolescence with a tendency toward selfishness. She switches best friends between working-class Darlene (Kathryn Newton, who evokes the great Wendie Jo Sperber) and rich-girl Jenna (Odeya Rush); and she dates theater enthusiast Danny (Lucas Hedges), then self-involved Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), who reads Howard Zinn, subscribes to hipster conspiracy theories, and bears a hilarious resemblance to Noah Baumbach.
Pop-culture footnote: Gerwig seems clear-eyed about the most famous aspect of her personal life. She gently mocks the culture-vulture pretenses of her well-known benefactor, Baumbach: Kyle plays in a band called L’Enfance Nue and, at an intimate moment, rebuffs her with the genuinely cutting remark, “You’re deciding to be upset.” That could be straight from The Meyerowitz Stories except that it reveals a character who is incapable of self-critique.
Christine rebels against church rules like so many ethnic smart-asses, but the church becomes her foundation when she contrasts it to lonely, big-city atheism.
Surely Gerwig’s autobiography isn’t the point, but the fact that she expresses it with authenticity makes the film likable — and distinguishes it from the young-adult formula of Juno and The Edge of Seventeen. Gerwig emulates the Mumblecore boys’ non-aesthetic and bests it. Christine’s cramped family kitchen is an American movie rarity, and her bratty anti-clericism at Immaculate Heart High School, which first looks like a girly clone of Rushmore, is never vicious but feels emotionally accurate. (Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson play a compassionate mother superior and priest.) Christine rebels against church rules like so many ethnic smart-asses, but the church becomes her foundation in ways that are funny (decorating a nun’s car) and then extraordinary when she contrasts it to lonely, big-city atheism. Her one-line assessment is the coup de grâce of the movie year.
Gerwig is known as the First Lady of Mumblecore, that movement of narcissistic Millennials who imagined that lo-fi filmmaking would be truer than Hollywood’s big-budget formula. She honors that title by making a film that transcends Mumblecore’s limitations.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.