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. 

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