Friday, January 31, 2020

Marriage Stories: The Coupling of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

It’s well known among film buffs that Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are a couple. They’re also the parents of a baby boy, born last March, just after she completed filming of Little Women. No indication, though, that these two golden Hollywood folks (both of whom are up for 2020 Best Screenplay Oscars), have wedding plans. In much of today’s America (as in many nations around the world) the stigma of bearing a child out of wedlock has rapidly disappeared. Little Harold is not likely to face social stigma for being what used to be called a bastard. Today the term has a far different, far more metaphoric, connotation, referring to a person’s character rather than his or her parentage. It’s all indicative of how much the matrimonial state itself has evolved over the course of our lifetimes.

Both Baumbach and Gerwig are Oscar nominees for writing (though not, alas, for directing) major films that look at marriage with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Baumbach, who was previously responsible for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, seems to have taken much to heart his own parents’ divorce when he was an adolescent. That film focuses on the impact of the parents’ split on 16-year-old Walt, who starts acting out at school when his mother and father take on new romantic partners. Baumbach has never hidden the fact that the details of the story match in many way his own family experience.

Though Baumbach’s Marriage Story seems further away from autobiography, it too explores the price that is paid by the entire family once parents separate, even when they mean their split to be amicable. The film begins by acknowledging the psychic cost to all concerned, then plunges us into the additional pain inflicted once attorneys get involved. It’s not a pretty picture, even despite the best of intentions. The American legal system, in fact, seems almost designed to make everything worse. One saving grace: time may not heal all wounds, but it does help those most intimately affected move on and learn to live in new ways

Then there’s Gerwig’s take on Little Women. Louisa May Alcott’s famous nineteenth-century novel for girls of course endorses conventional values, including the blessings of matrimony. The novel is surprisingly frank in recognizing that girls without money—and this describes Alcott’s semi-autobiographical March sisters—must needs consider being on the lookout for wealthy suitors. Alcott’s book hardly endorses this point of view, but makes it clear that Meg (the pretty eldest sister who marries for love) sometimes suffers over what she cannot afford. Then there’s Jo. Everyone who’s read the novel knows that Jo, having spurned the charming Laurie as a husband, finally finds romantic happiness with a kind of Germanic deus ex machina: a kind, jolly German professor who encourages her literary talents and allows her to live a married life that’s slightly outside the realm of convention. Jo of course is Alcott’s own alter ego, but Alcott herself never married. Instead she devoted her adult life to her writing career and to fulfilling the needs of her extended family.

Gerwig’s version of Little Women encourages us to see the close relationship of Jo March to her creator. Without distorting the original story, she reminds us of how dedicated Jo is to the notion of career over matrimony. So how does she reconcile her clearly feminist perspective with the ending Alcott herself wrote? It seems wrong to spoil the film by going into detail, but Gerwig’s Jo (while doing what needs to be done) ultimately remains true to her independent self.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

In Memoriam: A Superstar and a Supporting Player

All of Los Angeles and (I suspect) all of the world now mourn the loss of the brilliant, talented, unpredictable Kobe Bryant. More than simply a retired athlete, he was clearly a force of nature, bent on exploring all facets of life-in-the-big-city to the extent of his considerable powers. As movie buffs know, Kobe was even an Oscar winner, for the 2017 animated short called Dear Basketball. It’s a sweet (and beautifully hand-drawn) rendering of Bryant’s passion for the sport, one that recognizes in a simple but heartfelt way both the joys of the game and the limitations of the human body. It’s hard to dwell on the loss of such a man, and devastating to think of the thirteen-year-old daughter (yes, another basketball talent) who died with him, on the way to a practice.

But I’m also feeling somber because of the loss of someone much older and much less famous than Kobe Bryant. Marsha Kramer never won a major award, but she was a theatre professional from young adulthood until her death last week at the age of 74. Obituaries particularly noted her 14 appearances on TV’s Modern Family. She had a recurring role on Frasier, and appeared on such classic shows as Touched by an Angel, Cheers, Malcolm in the Middle, and Newhart. In addition, there were small parts in movies like 2013’s The Great Gatsby. By far her biggest credit, though, was as Wendy Darling, soaring off to Neverland in Sandy Duncan’s famous Broadway revival of Peter Pan.

I knew Marsha Kramer before all of that, when we were both still in high school. UCLA was offering a special six-week theatre workshop for stage-struck teenagers: kids came from all over SoCal to take part in acting exercises and perform in one-act plays for an invited audience. It was an interesting group. Some of us had family showbiz connections (like Lee J. Cobb’s pretty daughter, Julie), but most of us didn’t. Some were doing this for fun, and others were so serious about acting careers that they already had agents and stage names. Naturally we all kept an eye out for the future stars in our ranks. As was usual with high school drama kids, girls far out-numbered boys and had a far harder time getting cast in showy roles. There was one young man we all regarded as particularly talented and charismatic, and we anticipated seeing his name (either his real name or his chosen stage moniker) in lights. Never happened. But a very nice fellow named Richard Dreyfuss, who had never especially impressed me with his acting chops, has had a long, storied career, climaxing with a Best Actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl (yes, he beat out Richard Burton in Equus).

As for Marsha Kramer, the pride of the Westchester High School drama department, she was small, cute, poised, and had a lovely singing voice. So it wasn’t surprising that she nabbed a really good juvenile role at UCLA. Though I didn’t think much then about her future prospects, she was extremely likable, and years later I got a big kick out of her Peter Pan appearance. My favorite memory: when I saw the show circa 1982 at L.A.s Pantages Theatre, I overheard two women in the lobby marveling at the fact that the adorable little Wendy flying around the stage was actually 28 years old. The joke for me is that they were almost 10 years off: Marsha was probably 37 at the time, slightly older than Sandy Duncan. But no, I didn’t spill the beans.

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.