Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy—Little Women for All Seasons

Don’t  look now, but Little Women will be coming to theatres late next year. The newest version of Louisa May Alcott’s American coming-of-age classic is being directed by Greta Gerwig of Lady Bird fame. Gerwig also wrote the screenplay, and the film will feature her Lady Bird star, Saoirse Ronan, in the plum role of Jo March. That seems like apt casting, as does the choice of dreamy young Timothée Chalamet to play Laurie, the boy next door. Meryl Streep should make a formidable Aunt March.

The first part of the novel that played a major role in my own childhood debuted exactly 150 years ago, in 1868. To commemorate this literary milestone, my friend and colleague Anne Boyd Rioux (a professor at the University of New Orleans) has just published Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Part One of Anne’s fascinating book explores how Alcott came to write Little Women and how the book’s success ultimately shaped her life. Part Two looks to the long-range impact of Little Women on its readers, detouring into the many versions of the story that have shown up on stage and screen. My favorite is Part Three, in which Anne gets philosophical, discussing such topics as “Can Boys Read Little Women?” and pondering the effects of the book on the evolving feminist movement.

One thing Anne has taught me is that every era views Alcott’s work through a slightly different lens. We see this vividly in the many film versions she studies. Still the most famous is the Little Women of 1933, directed by George Cukor. Though shot entirely in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, this black & white film captures the book’s sense of nineteenth-century New England at the height of the Civil War. Depression-weary moviegoers responded strongly both to the film’s nostalgia and to its frank awareness of economic poverty. Anne is not an admirer of Katharine Hepburn’s famous portrayal of the lively, coltish Jo March, who would grow up to become Alcott herself. Having just viewed the film again, I’m more sure than ever that Hepburn (despite her mannerisms) is MY Jo, though the portrayals of her sisters by much-too-old Hollywood actresses now seem sadly dated.

After World War II, Mervyn LeRoy directed a cheery, optimistic (and Technicolor) version of Little Women, starring June Allyson as Jo. It’s been years, but I remember her as bouncy and appealing, with Janet Leigh as a pretty Meg, and Margaret O’Brien (at 12) appropriately young and introverted as gentle Beth. But Elizabeth Taylor in a blonde wig playing little Amy—what were they thinking?

Watching the 1994 Little Women again, I was struck by how hard the film was trying to capture the energy of the evolving Women’s Movement. Perhaps this was to be expected, given the participation of a female screenwriter, Robin Swicord, as well as a female director, Australia’s Gillian Armstrong. As the four girls’ beloved mother, Susan Sarandon was given some outspoken feminist moments (opposing the wearing of corsets, for one thing) that were true to the mindset of Alcott’s own mother but in no way reflect the attitudes of Marmee in the Alcott novel. I liked the casting of Meg (Trini Alvarado), Beth (Claire Danes), and 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst as an age-appropriate Amy. But a major problem for me was Winona Ryder, an engaging actress but simply too pretty and too petite to be Alcott’s ungainly Jo.  Anne’s affection for this version is palpable, though she also admits to its faults. As for me, I can’t wait to see what comes next. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Sisterhood is Deliverance in “Steel Magnolias”

I don’t know what it is about the Deep South. My spouse has noted that the honeysuckle accent that dominates the sound track of  many movies can sound charming on the lips of a woman. But a man with a Southern drawl generally conjures up the image of an overall-wearing, sixpack-chugging good ol’ boy. In short, a member of the Beverly Hillbillies.

There’s been so much stereotyping of the South at the movies that I was raised to be skeptical of all of it. On the one hand, movies have given us the romantic South, full of hoop skirts, white-pillared plantations, loyal darkies, and tragic loss on the field of battle. (See, of course, Gone With the Wind.) By contrast, there’s the racist South: bigotry and lynchings galore. That’s one reason why Deliverance (both James Dickey’s novel and the 1972 film directed by John Boorman) is so refreshing. The story of Deliverance contains no plantations and no racial strife. It’s a man-against-nature tale, in which four Atlanta city slickers who are out for a lark in the great outdoors find far more than they bargained for while on a river-rafting trip in Northern Georgia.

It happens that I have visited the gorge where the movie was made, a place where the late Burt Reynolds legendarily risked his life so the cameras could get a realistic shot of a man going over the falls in a canoe. While touring what’s called the Red Clay Country of North Georgia, my husband and I kept being asked by locals if we planned to have lunch at the Dillard House Inn. It sounded like a must-try, so we stopped in for what turned out to be one of the great meals of my life. (Biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, ribs, stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, corn on the cob, strawberry shortcake, and of course sweet iced tea, all for a ridiculously low price.) In the restaurant lobby, there was a showcase full of memorabilia relating to the Deliverance cast and crew, who had happily made the Dillard House their home away from home.  

So I have a soft spot in my heart (and of course my stomach) for Deliverance, and the passing of Burt Reynolds has helped remind me of the movie’s many charms. Aside from the vivid performances of Reynolds and Jon Voigt, Deliverance introduced to the screen the wonderful Ned Beatty, an appropriately Southern actor who began a great career when he took the role of the unfortunate Bobby Trippe, he who runs afoul of some genuine hillbilly types.  

Another aspect of Southern life shows up in Steel Magnolias, the 1989 film (directed by Herbert Ross) based on a hit Broadway play. This is the small-town South of middle-aged white ladies who hang out at the local beauty parlor to gossip, to bicker, and to support one another when the chips are down. They have funny names (M’Lynn, Truvy, Ouiser, Annelle, Clairee) and they’re played by some of Hollywood’s finest (Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis), all of them clearly having a fine old time. There’s lots of humor, but also a highly serious plot strand involving M’Lynn’s newlywed daughter Shelby (a very young Julia Roberts) and the medical condition that may wreak havoc on her pregnancy. As in the somewhat similar Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), laughter and tears prettily co-mingle, with Southern Sisterhood proving to be powerful indeed. Just to make it  quite clear that these folks are without racial bias, I noticed in crowd scenes the occasional strategic black face.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Professor Marston and Wonder Woman and Ted and Alice

Who knew? Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014) reveals how William Moulton Marston, a professor of psychology who claimed he’d invented the lie detector, created the comic book heroine to advance his belief that women should rule the world. His fascination with strong, smart women played out in remarkable fashion in his personal life. In 1915, he married Elizabeth Holloway, who had earned advanced degrees in psychology and law. Several years later, he invited into their ménage a young Tufts University student, Olive Byrne, who started as a research assistant but quickly morphed into a romantic partner. Each of the women ultimately produced two children, and they all lived together as one big, apparently happy, family. This polyamorous relationship lasted until Marston’s death in 1947, and far beyond it, with  Elizabeth and Olive harmoniously sharing quarters for the rest of their lives. (Olive died in 1985 at the age of 81. Elizabeth passed away in 1993, at the ripe old age of 100.)

 Despite the brash unconventionality of their living arrangement, the three remained strictly mum about their private sexual connection. According to Lepore, it was Olive who insisted on keeping her sons’ paternity a secret. Though she came from a line of bold feminists (birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger was her aunt), Olive seemed determined to appear conventional, inventing a dead husband who had engendered her two boys, and publicly describing herself as a housekeeper who lived on the premises. From Lepore’s account of her, I picture a tall, shy, rather awkward woman who’d been deeply scarred by her mother’s abandonment of her while passionately pursuing her crusade for women’s suffrage. (In her absence, Olive was raised by nuns.)

All of which I knew when I sat down to watch a well-reviewed 2017 film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. In the wake of the success of the costume epic directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot as the ultimate woman warrior, it seemed wholly appropriate that writer/director Angela Robinson would want to fill in the public on the story behind the story of the Amazon princess from Paradise Island. Here’s my problem: I get the impression that Robinson tried bending the existing facts in order to come up with a tale that’s even more provocative (OK, kinkier) than Lepore’s intensive research would suggest.

In Robinson’s cinematic telling, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) is a tall, thin powerhouse and Olive (Bella Heathcote) is a gorgeously curvy blonde co-ed who surprises both Marstons by declaring her love for the wife, not the husband. Yes, she comes around to appreciating the hunky charms of the good professor, but it’s Elizabeth after whom she particularly lusts. (Hall’s portrayal is so spectacularly dynamic that I can see Olive’s point.) If the film is to be believed, it’s Olive who personally adopts Wonder Woman’s crown and bustier, making her the physical model for  Marston’s comic book creation. And her cheerful readiness to be bound and trussed (first at Elizabeth’s hands) explains, for Robinson, the frequent moments of bondage that Lepore and other comic-book commentators can’t fail to notice. Marston, it must be said, was a big believer in what he called “loving submission.” Both book and film reveal him as a man of unusual beliefs and appetites. But armed with the facts that Lepore has unearthed from interviews and archives, I could not find myself submitting in full to a film that invents facts for its own purposes. It’s picturesque to think of Wonder Woman as a blend of Elizabeth’s brains and Olive’s physicality, but the real truth seems—alas—to lie elsewhere.