Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Four Little Women and How They Grew

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” So Little Women begins on the page, and so previous screen versions have always begun: with the four March sisters lamenting the poverty they face while their father is off in the Civil War. One striking feature of Greta Gerwig’s new version is that it dares to break the mold and play with the book’s chronology.

Growing up I was a serious Louisa May Alcott fan. I read most of Alcott’s novels, which fall into the category you could call 19th century YA, and I later persuaded my kids (yes, my son as well as my daughter) to enjoy Little Women, as I had. More recently I’ve read Alcott biographies, and also the fictional March (about the Civil War escapades of Jo’s father), plus Anne Boyd Rioux’s scholarly Meg, Jo,Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. So I guess you could call me a true believer.
As such I’ve always been partial to the 1933 George Cukor screen adaptation, at least to Jo as portrayed by Katharine Hepburn. Alcott’s original description of Jo, her own literary alter ego, was that she was “tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way.” No other Jo in my memory comes so close to this physical description as Hepburn, and her striking combination of awkwardness, intelligence, and occasional pig-headedness makes her my nostalgic favorite. The 1949 musical version features, alas, June Allyson warbling about being “the man of the family now that Papa is away from home.” Allyson is just too cute and perky to be my Jo. In this iteration, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Janet Leigh makes a conventionally pretty Meg, Margaret O’Brien an appropriately fragile Beth, and Elizabeth Taylor  an extremely unlikely Amy, overgrown and wearing a distracting blonde wig. (Yikes!)

Hollywood then left the story alone until 1994, when an actual female director, Gillian Armstrong, took it on. Her version, much loved by many women I know, conveys a nice warm sense of family, presided over by a glowing Marmee (the mother character) in the person of Susan Sarandon. I’ve admired the young Claire Danes as Beth and the even younger Kirsten Dunst as a perfect snip of an Amy, though at 12 she could not play Amy’s later scenes and had to be replaced by Samantha Mathis. It all looks gorgeous but I just can’t accept Winona Ryder: too petite and too pretty to ever be awkward, intense Jo.

Greta Gerwig had the bright idea of focusing on Jo’s literary aspirations by starting the film near the story’s end, with Jo living in New York as a fledgling writer. Gerwig’s structure is complex, moving us back and forth in time. Uniquely, she focuses on a Jo who genuinely spurns marriage in favor of a career. How does she handle the fact that Alcott’s Jo does indeed fall in love and get married? There’s a clever twist I don’t think it’s fair to fully disclose; suffice it to say that this is the most “meta” of Little Women adaptations, so that the Jo we meet is in many ways Alcott herself, adapting her family’s story for popular consumption. Other virtues: Laura Dern’s Marmee and Florence Pugh’s Amy are far more complex than usual; Meryl Streep is a hoot as stern Aunt March; and Saoirse Ronan’s uninhibited romping with the boy-next-door, Timothée Chalamet, captures a delightfully warm relationship that  she cannot allow to ripen into love.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Megxit: Will Harry and Meg Take a Canadian Holiday?

Day after day, the shocking headlines are rolling out of Great Britain, and they don’t have anything to do with Brexit. Harry and Meghan (last names unnecessary) are giving up their status as senior royals! They’re planning to spend a good part of their time overseas (likely in Canada, where Meghan’s grandmother-in-law’s picture is still on the money)! They want to earn their own living (imagine that!) and make their own rules! They no long want to be called by their “royal highness” titles! (I don’t suppose “your royal lowness” is under consideration.)

I’m sure it’s all heartbreaking for Queen Elizabeth and for fans of British traditionalism, of which the U.S. has many. From afar it looks like an easy gig to be a royal: you dress beautifully, visit hospitals, and wave with your fingers stuck together. But from my brief experience at being a semi-celebrity—when I was one of 56 U.S. pavilion guides at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan—I know that it can prove exhausting to be constantly the center of attention. Good behavior at all times is hardly natural or easy. And Meghan’s outsider status has certainly left her wide open to a press that is always on the lookout for snarky scoops.

In any case, the situation naturally set me to thinking about movies in which young royals chafe under the pressures they face. Little girls may still want to grow up to be princesses. (Even, I’m told, William and Kate’s daughter Charlotte has this fantasy, notwithstanding the fact that she is a princess for real.) The movies, especially Disney fare like Frozen and the Princess Diaries franchise, certainly encourage royalty-envy. But the whole situation of a princess struggling to accept the demands of her royal status takes me back a long way to 1953, and Audrey Hepburn’s first major film, the delightful Roman Holiday.

The story of Roman Holiday, which was filmed on location in the Eternal City, is simplicity itself. The young Princess Anne, representing some unnamed European country, is on a state visit to Rome. She’s beautiful and poised . . . and unspeakably bored by all the pomp and circumstance surrounding her visit. That’s why she sneaks out of her royal quarters . . . and finds herself in the company of an ambitious reporter, Gregory Peck, who at first sees in her the potential for a terrific journalistic coup. Soon, of course, he’s charmed by her innocent delight in common pleasures, like eating an ice cream cone in public and zooming through the twisty streets of Rome on a Vespa motorbike. It’s  not long before she’s having her long royal locks shorn into a modern style and gotten herself involved in a good old-fashioned fracas that prompts the arrival of the carabinieri. And, of course, she’s come very close to falling in love. The end of the film (as I’m sure everyone has anticipated) is a return to the basic status quo: Anne is back doing her royal duty, and Peck’s character is again no more than a member of the press corps. But while life as a commoner has subtly changed her, her vibrant enthusiasm has softened Peck’s cynical approach to life. It’s a quietly happy ending, particularly for Hepburn, who went home with a Best Actress Oscar.

This movie also won Oscars for Edith Head’s costumes and for its witty screenplay. The latter statuette was presented to Ian McLellan Hunter, who was in fact fronting for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. It took forty years for the late Trumbo to be acknowledged as the film’s true author.

Friday, January 17, 2020

“Pain and Glory”: Not Lost in Translation

A movie about a successful film director coming to terms with his own past? Sounds suspiciously like Fellini’s 8 ½.  But Pedro Almadóvar could never be confused with the Italian master. First of all, Fellini’s alter ego (played by Marcello Mastroianni) is bedeviled by the various women in his life: his ex-wife, his mistress, the idealized woman of his dreams. (The latter is represented on-screen by the luscious Claudia Cardinale.) Almadóvar’s central character, as played in a strikingly complex performance by Antonio Banderas, is more romantically focused on men. But the essential figure in his life is female: his strong, fierce, intelligent mother, who once made sure—despite the challenges of poverty—that her young son got the education he deserved. (In flashback scenes, she’s represented on-screen by another Almadóvar regular, the luminous Penélope Cruz.)

Then there’s the fact that 8 ½.like many of Fellini’s masterworks, is filmed in austere black & white. Almadóvar, more than any other director I can think of, is in love with color: his characters wear electric orange, brilliant red, poison green, as well as bold eye-catching prints, and they live against dazzling backdrops made up of impossible color combinations. I’m told that the home occupied in the film by Banderas’s newly-affluent character, Salvador, is in fact Almadóvar’s own, which clues us in to the fact that they share similar tastes, if not identical life stories.

When first seen, Salvador is literally under water, symbolically drowning from a combination of physical pain, guilt, and lack of artistic inspiration. Invited by a prestigious cinematheque to star in a Q&A celebrating his 30-year-old film, Sabor, he does everything he can to sabotage the evening. Obsessed, because of past memories, with the ravages of addiction, he comes very close to going off the deep end. This is the point in the film where viewers like me start to become deeply uncomfortable: where exactly is this heading?

But an Almadóvar film delights in the unexpected. It occurs to me that this is one way that Pain and Glory echoes, but in reverse, another of the year’s great foreign-language features, the South Korean Parasite.  That film won my heart partly for the way it shifted gears from comedy into something far different. In a sense—though I don’t want to oversimplify—Pain and Glory works in the reverse order, immersing the leading character in what seems to be hopeless psychic pain, but then, through some off-the-wall but deeply moving coincidences, pulling him out of it. It’s a victory we savor, leading to a gloriously meta closing scene. (No, it’s not the director and all the people in his life joining hands and dancing in a ring to a Nino Rota score.)

Like Parasite, Pain and Glory (aka Dolor y Gloria) is an Oscar nominee for Best International Feature Film, a renamed category that used to be Best Foreign Language Film. And like Parasite it too is the recipient of major awards, both for Almadóvar and for Banderas’s essential work. Though it’s rare for a foreign-language performance to win an Oscar, Banderas (a much admired actor in both Spanish and English) could conceivably go home with a statuette. Probably not, alas: there’s a Joker in that deck.. But the strength of both Parasite and Pain and Glory should remind us moviegoers not to feel limited to films made in our own language. One small theatre chain in L.A. proudly uses as its slogan “Not afraid of subtitles.” If we insist on seeing only movies made in English, we’re missing out on a whole wide world of great cinema.

Here’s a letter in which Almadóvar himself writes about the autobiographical aspects of this film