C’mon, People. ‘Little Women’ Isn’t That Good
Am I the only one who just isn’t feeling the Oscar-nominated hit?
Full disclosure: Louisa May Alcott’s post-Civil War novel Little Women is one of a handful of books I read more than twice as a child, and I’ve seen as many screen adaptations of it over the years. I’ve yet to love a filmed version as much as I do the book, so it might have been nearly impossible for writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) to wow me with her interpretation.
Lukewarm as I am about Little Women, version 2019, I appear to be in the minority. Critics and the movie’s devoted online following have singled out the liberties Gerwig took with the book’s timeline and her modern-feminist flourishes as bar-raising, inadvertently suggesting that the 1860s source material couldn’t have stood on its own in the 21st century.
As 2019 Oscar-caliber movies featuring female characters taking control of their destinies go, Little Women, with its six nominations, may be better than Bombshell (a movie whose female protagonists, beyond Charlize Theron’s physical transformation into Megyn Kelly, are too thinly drawn), but it’s no Hustlers. Jennifer Lopez and company assert their girl power in Hustlers by playing and preying on the male characters, basically using sex as a weapon of mass deception.
Perhaps its poetic justice was too raw, too cold, and too felonious for the Academy’s warm embrace. It received zero Oscar nominations. Still, it kept me riveted in a way Little Women and Bombshell didn’t.
Hustlers offers a fresh, modern twist on an old story: women angling to survive in a man’s man’s man’s world. The latest Little Women delivers its fresh, modern twist mainly through the secondary primary character of Amy, who, in Gerwig’s version, plays the sexist system in the 1860s with knowing gusto (if you’re going to be your husband’s property, you’d better marry rich — very rich), much like Hustlers’s hustlers play the sexist system some 140 years later.
In a way, she beats Jo, the ultimate fictional late-1860s feminist played by Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan, at the man-smart-woman-smarter game. Jo may retain ownership of her novel (unless she marries the poor Friedrich Bhaer and effectively becomes his property), but both in her work and in her personal life, she caves to her publisher’s insistence that people can only appreciate female characters when they die at the end or walk off into the sunset with a man beside them (two fates, incidentally, that extend to all four titular March sisters, Meg, Beth, Amy, and even Jo). Relevant fact: None of Hustlers’ anti-heroines do either.
Jo may retain ownership of her novel, but both in her work and in her personal life, she caves to her publisher’s insistence that people can only appreciate female characters when they die at the end or walk off into the sunset with a man beside them.
If Amy (played by Oscar nominee Florence Pugh, who occupies one of the five Best Supporting Actress slots denied to Lopez) had lived in New York City circa 2008, she might have been Hustlers ringleader instead of J. Lo. But what would the still-stodgy Academy have thought of Amy (and Pugh) then?
The shock of the new in Hustlers (women using their sexuality to become victors instead of victims) may have been too much for Oscar voters’ serious consideration, but the story and performances held my attention all the way to the end credits.
While watching Little Women, though, I was less engaged by the action unfolding onscreen than by the thoughts unfolding in my head.
Lady Bird’s Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet (as Laurie), together again!
Also reunited: Meryl Streep (Aunt March) and Chris Cooper (Laurie’s grandfather). They played lovers in Adaptation, the 2002 film for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
They were co-stars once more 11 years later in August: Osage County, a movie written by Tracy Letts, who plays Jo’s publisher in Little Women. He also co-starred with Streep in The Post. Oh, and Streep is also reunited here with her Big Little Lies co-star Laura Dern (Marmee).
Wait. Tracy Letts also played Saoirse Ronan’s dad in Lady Bird two years ago. That means he’s now co-starred with her in two films for which she received Best Actress Oscar nominations.
The four March sisters all are played by foreign actresses. So much for the ultimate American woman story.
Laura Dern is four years older now (52) than Susan Sarandon was when she was Marmee in 1994’s Little Women, but somehow she seems younger.
There’s Bob Odenkirk as Mr. March! He played a much more pivotal role in The Post, the last movie for which Streep was Oscar-nominated for Best Actress (alongside Ronan for Lady Bird).
That earlier window scene (the one on the movie’s promotional poster) reminds me so much of a similar window scene late in the 1978 Woody Allen drama Interiors, another film anchored by the familial dynamics among sisters.
But not every thought going through my head during Little Women was incidental to the action onscreen. The narrative of Gerwig’s screenplay and her crew’s execution of it made an impression, too (mostly via the costumes, the set design, and the cinematography), though not always a positive one.
The cast does solid work, but with the exception of Pugh, Streep, and, during one drunken party scene, Chalamet, their characters are thoughtful and likable, unburdened by guilt, rage, or assholery, the sort of qualities that might demand significant artistic stretching. Jo violently flips out at Amy after Amy burns her book, but her indignation is justified, and it doesn’t last long. Marmee tells Jo she’s angry nearly every day of her life, yet she spends the entire film being saintly without any real hint of stifled fury. Dern must have saved it all up for her Oscar-nominated work in Marriage Story.
Pugh is adept at negotiating Amy’s young adulthood in the 1868 scenes, but she’s not wholly convincing as seven years younger in the 1861 scenes. This has less to do with her acting — she nails the awkward physicality of teen Amy and the mature refinement of grown-up Amy — than her casting.
Pugh’s voice is rich and deep, and it oozes confidence. I didn’t buy that it was coming from a girl barely into her teens in the flashbacks. She also doesn’t look the part of the youngest March sister. Pugh, 24, is only a little under two years younger than 25-year-old Ronan, and she’s three years older than Eliza Jane Scanlen, the Australian actress who plays third sister Beth. The metamorphosis of Amy from tween to 20-year-old is crucial to Little Women’s plot, and it doesn’t resonate as it should with a 24-year-old actress playing both then and now.
The time-jumping between 1868 and 1861 without title cards is no less problematic. If I hadn’t been so familiar with the source material, I might have been confused by the constant back and forth.
In a way, it also undermines Alcott’s narrative. By playing past and present side by side, Gerwig dilutes the dramatic suspense of the story more than she enhances it. SPOILER ALERT (for those who haven’t read the book or watched previous screen adaptations): We see Laurie + Amy, the novel’s best twist, coming within the first 15 minutes, and we know Beth is doomed almost from the start.
With the exception of Jo’s shorn hair in a number of the flashback scenes and Amy’s Parisian finery in 1868, the little women look pretty much the same in the past as they do in the present. Amy’s tween bangs and adult wardrobe aside, there’s little discernible physical evidence of their evolution from girlhood to adulthood.
Overall, Little Women is an OK movie (I preferred the more traditional approach of the 1994 version, which didn’t weigh down its 1860s with modern-day language, mannerisms, and woke-ness), but it is as unnecessary a remake as A Star Is Born was in 2018. I’m not sure why Gerwig used Alcott’s tale to bring past female empowerment into the present when there are other compelling stories about strong, powerful 19th-century women that are relevant today and haven’t already been told to death onscreen.
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A suggestion: the complex relationship between two of the most significant women of the 1800s after Harriet Tubman — American suffragette leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The story of those two intertwined strong-willed opposites (not unlike Jo and Amy) almost writes itself, but it can’t tell itself. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the Hollywood boys club of directors ever tackling it, so it might be up to a woman behind the camera to finally get Stanton and Anthony onscreen.
Let’s hope some talented ladies make it happen before the next inevitable and totally unnecessary revival of Little Women comes along.