Monday, January 6, 2020

Little Women: Temporal Bigotry

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig's Little Women.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is the first movie version in which almost none of the charm and poignancy of the beloved Louisa May Alcott novel, published in 1868 and 1869, comes through. Not counting the lost silents – there were two, in 1917 and 1918, one in England and one in America – Gerwig’s is the fourth major adaptation for the big screen. George Cukor’s 1933 film, with its picture-postcard visuals, came out from RKO, though it's in the mold of MGM’s vellum-bound, studio-set approach to the Victorian classics. It’s beautifully adapted (by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, though lists nine other uncredited contributors, including Charles Brackett) and meticulously detailed, with an A-list cast that features Spring Byington as Marmee, Joan Bennett as Beth, the stunning beauty Frances Dee as Meg and Douglass Montgomery as Laurie. And in Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of Jo it touches greatness. It was Hepburn’s second year in Hollywood and her fourth picture, and no one has ever been more ideally suited to the role of Alcott’s feisty, ambitious, iconoclastic – and autobiographical – heroine. In the early scenes she overplays Jo’s gawkiness and tomboyishness, but she seems to find her stride as her character does, her grandiose romantic flourishes taking on the shape of Jo’s discovery of the world and her place within it. Hepburn shows us how Jo grows up, and I can’t be the only viewer who has never forgotten the moment when her Jo, after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal, confesses to Marmee in an anguished moan, “I feel as if I’d stabbed my best friend in the heart!”

MGM remade Little Women in 1949, under Mervyn LeRoy’s direction, in a rather starched version, and the studio didn’t seem to have the right contract players to take on some of the major roles – June Allyson as Jo and Janet Leigh aren’t right, and as Marmee Mary Astor just goes through the motions, recycling the performance she’d given five years earlier in Meet Me in St. Louis. (She even gets the same husband, Leon Ames.) But the young, preternaturally exquisite Elizabeth Taylor, tossing her blonde ringlets, makes a delightful Amy, and Margaret O’Brien brings her feverous intensity to Beth’s dialogue, especially in the scene where she bids farewell to Jo. (Jean Parker, who plays Beth in Cukor’s film, is sweet but insipid.) And, barely altering the 1933 screenplay, the movie still manages to be satisfying. It took the screenwriter Robin Swicord and the director Gillian Armstrong to reimagine the material in a magnificent 1994 collaboration, where the March family take on the characteristics of the Alcotts. Making them proto-feminists, abolitionists, teetotalers, opponents of child labor and proponents of homeopathic medicine enables the filmmakers to provide modern audiences with a way into the mid-nineteenth-century story without simply imposing a late-twentieth-century sensibility on it or pretending that what Alcott actually wrote is dated and fatuous. And wouldn’t that be stupid, considering that the book is still as popular among young adults as it ever was? Impeccably acted by Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvarado as Meg, Claire Danes as Beth, Kirsten Dunst and then Samantha Mathis as Amy, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Christian Bale as Laurie, Gabriel Byrne as Prof. Bhaer, Eric Stoltz as John Brooke, John Neville as Mr. Laurence, Mary Wickes as Aunt March and Florence Paterson as Hannah, sumptuously designed and shot – the cinematographer is Geoffrey Simpson – this Little Women is also a dream version of the material, with burnished period images (a pair of children dragging a cart containing pumpkins becomes an objective correlative for autumn) and a lyricism that evokes both Griffith and Renoir. After Beth dies, Hannah the housekeeper crushes rose petals over her abandoned bed, pausing to scatter some over her cherished dolls. It’s a sublime moment in one of the most imaginative and grounded of all literary adaptations.

Armstrong and Swicord’s adaptation is a tough act to follow, even after a quarter of a century, but that’s not much of an excuse for Gerwig’s film, which neither finds elements in the material that have escaped her predecessors nor offers (as Le Roy’s did) a competent copy of what others have already done. I found Gerwig’s last effort, Lady Bird, hopelessly phony, but she showed some talent for writing in her screenplay for her husband Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, which she also starred in. (I had less affection for their next collaboration, Mistress America.) And since I assume she loves Alcott’s book as much as the rest of us, and since Alcott has provided a rock-bound dramatic structure that all of the previous versions were smart enough to stick to, I held out some hope that it might bring out the best in her. But for reasons I can’t even guess at, she’s tossed out the structure and – like the mediocre Broadway musical from 2005 – opted for a frame, Jo’s life as a young woman in a Manhattan boarding-house, that acts as a hinge for a series of flashbacks to her and her sisters’ growing up in Concord, Massachusetts during and just after the Civil War. Since it’s Beth’s death that spurs Jo to write the story of her family, this choice doesn’t appear to have a dramatic point, and the movement in and out of the flashback episodes is so random that it feels as if Gerwig cut up the narrative and threw the pieces into a hat. Without the dramatic arc of Alcott’s story we don’t experience Jo’s life or that of her sisters as a growth to maturity, and Gerwig falls back on Hollywood clichés to supply the glue that she’s drained out, like Amy’s confession to Laurie that she’s loved him her whole life or a crummy rom-com scene where, after Jo almost lets Friedrich Bhaer, her German-émigré boardinghouse companion, visiting her in Concord following her sister’s demise, go off to take a teaching job in California, her family gathers to tell her that it’s obvious to all of them that she’s in love with him.

Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh in Little Women.

More importantly, the scenes that the author conceived as culminations of their individual stories can no longer function that way because we haven’t gotten to know each of them well enough. The worst structural mistake Gerwig makes is intercutting the scenes leading up to Beth’s death with the scarlet fever she contracts as an adolescent, which weakens her constitution. Not only does this back-and-forth reduce Beth (Eliza Scanlen) to a generic sick girl but the stockpiling of her two bouts of illness lessens the dramatic power of both. In Cukor’s movie, the difference in Jo’s handling of two situations – her hysteria in the first, when she thinks her favorite sister has died (when in fact the fever has broken and Beth has fallen into a healthful sleep), and her strength and courage when Beth’s passing prompts her to forget her own grief and reach out to console her sobbing mother – shows us how Jo the child has been transformed into Jo the woman. In Armstrong’s movie, we see how Beth, terrified by her first illness, has acquired a moving patience and serenity in her acceptance of her impending death. In both cases the surefooted riggings of the writing enable a superb actress to climb to dramatic heights.

Scanlen is boxed in anyway, because Gerwig has removed the underpinnings of her character. I don’t know whether Gerwig is pandering to contemporary sensibilities or indulging a fatuous notion of her own about what adapting a nineteenth-century classic for the twenty-first century might mean, but I didn’t believe for five minutes that the characters were living in the 1860s. What Armstrong and Swicord (who is an executive producer on this version) did was to highlight the ways in which progressive people of that era were attuned to ideas that seem amazingly modern to us – just as the doctor in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, written around the turn of the twentieth century, with his obsession with ecology, anticipates our own modern-day concerns. Gerwig, by contrast, simply eliminates everything that doesn’t resonate with her or that she is afraid won’t resonate with her audience, as if that were the only criterion. Alcott’s Jo, like many another young woman of her time, winds up marrying a middle-aged professor, but lest her audience might have to grapple with a démodé social custom Gerwig turns Bhaer into a hot young dude (played by Louis Garrel). The March family are Christians; Mr. March, in Alcott’s book and in previous film versions, is a chaplain with the Union Army. (In the 1994 film the Marches are Quakers.) Gerwig excises that detail; she’s careful to inform us that he’s fighting for the Union Army. But she must have realized that she’d need Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk) to be a minister so he could perform the marriage ceremony for Meg (Emma Watson) and John (James Norton), so unaccountably he turns into a minister for three minutes in the middle of the picture. That’s just a silly glitch, but taking the Christian context out of the story is a more serious error, because the family’s Christianity defines them – their acts of charity (like donating their Christmas breakfast to the poor Hummels), the other virtues Marmee has imbued them with. The girls – and, she admits to Jo in a surprising passage in the book, Marmee herself – are constantly struggling to embrace those virtues and repress their human tendency to let their faults (anger, pride, vanity, obstinacy) dominate. And the March girl who devotes herself most fervently to the ideals of Christianity is Beth. You can get rid of much of the detail of their Christian lives (like the game they play in the opening chapter based on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress), but not acknowledging this vital context is like pretending the characters in Fiddler on the Roof aren’t Jewish – and it doesn’t leave anything for Scanlen to play as Beth except physical deterioration.

Gerwig’s vision for the March family seems to be that they’re quirky, sort-of proto-Beatniks or proto-hippies. The first time Jo (Saiorse Ronan) brings Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) home, Marmee (Laura Dern) begs him to excuse the mess and jokes that she’s the kind of oddball homemaker who bakes in the middle of the evening, as if she were that eccentric and disorganized neighborhood mom we all recall, and she dresses her daughters in atrocities of all colors. (This is not the gifted costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s finest hour.) Marmee neither presents her daughters with a Christian model like Alcott’s nor offers a coherent alternative. Fortunately Dern brings a great deal of warmth to her performance and Ronan and Watson, both splendid actors, also come through. They’re the only cast members who are much good, really. Chalamet is livelier than usual, but he’s not especially likable, so we don’t feel anything when Jo rejects him or root for him to join the March family at last. Chris Cooper seems totally miscast as Mr. Laurence, and his mutton-chop whiskers don’t become him; this wonderful actor, who manages to turn a series of melodramatic platitudes into a three-dimensional character in A Beautiful Day in the Neighorhood, is buried in his make-up here. As Aunt March, Meryl Streep plays cute and parodies herself. And I can’t figure out why Florence Pugh as Amy has been singled out for praise and awards, unless it’s because of all these actors pretending to be cavorting in the 1860s she’s the least convincing. Pugh is as bad here as she was as Cordelia in the Anthony Hopkins King Lear, but it’s not all her fault, since the character doesn’t make sense. Even in the 1994 movie, where Susan Sarandon’s Marmee was unmistakably a feminist ahead of her time, Amy wasn’t; she was a mediocre student and rather superficial until she grew up abroad with Aunt March and fell in love with Laurie. In Gerwig’s movie she keeps reminding us that she’s not as bright as Jo but she spouts feminist rhetoric from somewhere. (And here it can’t be from Marmee.)

Alcott wrote a scene between Beth and Jo just before Beth’s death that is so moving that Gerwig’s predecessors didn’t have to embroider it. It ends with Beth telling Jo, “I think I’ll miss you even in heaven,” a line so beautiful in its simplicity that naturally it shows up in both the studio-era versions and in the 1994 one; you figure that only an idiot would take it out. But someone in the audience might get offended at the mention of heaven, or maybe it just doesn’t appeal to Gerwig, so out it goes. I would have thought that Little Women was one classic text that might have been immune to what a classics professor friend of mine calls temporal bigotry. L.P. Hartley famously began his novel The Go-Between with the line, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Not as far as Greta Gerwig is concerned, apparently.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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