Skipping the festival circuit just as Bombshell did, Sony’s holiday-season gift, Little Women, was unveiled Wednesday night at a DGA Theater screening for SAG and select media, putting another piece of the Oscar puzzle into clearer focus. Greta Gerwig wrote and directed and, if you wondered after seven — count ’em — seven film versions if we really needed an eighth, the answer is yes. Gerwig has found a way to take this pre-Victorian period piece about the lives and loves of four sisters and make it vital for audiences today. Setting it completely apart from previous versions, she tells the story of the March family in a risky, nonlinear style that pays off nicely.
The turnaway crowd at the DGA rewarded Gerwig with a standing ovation when she was introduced for the postscreening Q&A (she also had appeared briefly to introduce it). She joined cast members Laura Dern, who plays the mother, Marmie; Meryl Streep, who is Aunt March; scene stealer Florence Pugh as Amy; Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, the only male presence onstage last night; and star Saoirse Ronan, who plays Jo, the not-so-thinly disguised alter-ego of author Louisa May Alcott. The want-to-see factor was so strong that even some media members from outlets including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times got shut out, though Sony bent over backward to try and accommodate, even offering a makeshift screening later that night at its studio in Culver City (my colleague Anthony D’Alessandro took them up on it). Some were seen frantically walking up and down the aisles of the theater trying to find any open seat, while many others were in the lobby locked out completely. A BAFTA screening at Arclight in Hollywood set for an hour later also was at capacity.
After two silent versions in 1917 and 1918, feature versions in 1933, 1949, 1978 (as a TV miniseries) and 1994 — the latter being the final major production — Gerwig has found a fresh way to tell the well-worn tale in a sumptuously designed film that should hit the mark, particularly with a young female audience that will find much with which to relate, even more than 150 years since it was published. It could easily become the first and only other version to land a Best Picture nomination since George Cukor’s 1933 take. This, after all, is the first Little Women in the #MeToo era, and with its enhanced emphasis on the plight of women and money and forging a path in a man’s world, it takes on extra relevance and gravitas beyond any previous film version. Jo March could become a heroine all over again. That alone would give the film the kind of importance that will benefit a Best Picture run, but it delivers on many fronts, and Gerwig proves again she is a triple-threat talent to reckon with.
Ronan is in line to receive her fourth Oscar nomination and third as Best Actress (most recently in Gerwig’s Lady Bird) at only age 25. Pugh, still haunting me as the May Queen in this year’s Midsommar, is a cinch for a Supporting Actress nomination. Whether this lands Streep in the same category with a 22nd nomination as the feisty status- and money-conscious Aunt March is anyone’s guess, but she’s grand here in a relatively small role. She also has her work in Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat in the mix, though. Dern is likely to be nominated in support for her unforgettable divorce lawyer in Gerwig’s significant other Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, but adding in her moving and wise Marmee could help cement a first Oscar winprobably . Emma Watson as Meg is another standout in an ensemble that will land a SAG Cast nomination.
Among the men, Chalamet is a standout and also deserving of some consideration, even though the Supporting Actor field is way overcrowded. Tracey Letts as Jo’s publisher is perfection too. Production design, costumes, cinematography, directing, adapted screenplay and Alexandre Desplat’s lush score should all be in play as well. This is a film that shows off moviemaking craft in a very fine light. Amy Pascal, along with Denise Di Novi and Robin Swicord (who adapted the ’94 film), produced on gorgeous Massachusetts locations.
“I am really nervous and really excited, and I couldn’t be more honored to share this with you,” Gerwig told the crowd before the film rolled. “This really to me means so much. I grew up with this book. I know a lot of people did. They felt like my sisters. Their adventures felt like my family’s. In some ways when you grow up with literature like that, it becomes part of your internal life. It’s always been my dream to make this before I even had the option.”
The director praised her cast and gave passionate reasons for taking on this project as the first film since her Oscar nominations for directing and writing Lady Bird just two years ago. “What they did was they so tenderly brought each and every character to life,” Gerwig said. “They did that magical thing that you can do in that they make you live and breathe in front of you. One of the things that struck me when I was working on it, when I was reading the book again, was how much these women as adults meant to me, going through their adulthood. The way I have structured the movie is about how we are always are walking with our childhood selves in a way. As a young girl my heroine was Jo, and as a young woman my heroine was Louise May Alcott.”
It was pointed out that Pascal, after hearing Gerwig’s pitch on this new treatment of the iconic novel, said “it’s punk rock and Shakespearean,” a description that leaves Gerwig speechless. “So much of it is about money, and women and money, and women and art and money, and how do you make art if you don’t have money,” the filmmaker said of a recurring theme she got out of the book, adding that personally she thinks about that “a lot.”
“When I went in to talk about the book, the thing I see this film as being about is it so incredibly pressing, and modern, and important to tell this story about these ambitious girls who want so much more than the world is able to provide them at this moment,” she said. “People remember it as being a kind of pre-Victorian morality and it is all tied up, but embroiled in that is [much more]. You forget how wild it is.”
Each of the stars onstage marveled at how Gerwig was able to lead the way so succinctly for the wickedly great ensemble. Dern was particularly articulate on that point. “Greta broke [Marmee] wide open, as she did for all of these characters and yet revealed the thing that was in the book which was so extraordinary on a level of understanding and compassion and tolerance and openness about things that are still complicated for people today,” she said, adding “empathy” to the list. “From my perspective in reading the book through Greta’s words, and back in Louisa’s words, it was about everything – tolerance and sexuality and race and competition and evolution, and doing it without money and without men in a home, and what that looked like, And it was so raw and so true and so bold.”
This is not your Marmee’s Little Women, but it is faithful and revolutionary in equal measures. Sony opens it on Christmas Day, and that seems like a no-brainer date for this one, which also has a lot of holiday sentiment in it as well.
As someone on the panel pointed out, of some 40 movies being touted as Best Picture contenders this year, only two are driven by a central female ensemble, on camera and behind it. Little Women is one of them. The other? Hustlers. An Oscar race ranging from Louisa May Alcott to JLo! Who knew?