Thursday, December 22, 2011

Modern Film Classics: “Little Women” (Christmas Edition)

Everyone has their annual Christmas movie rituals. Most people favour It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Less orthodox but equally worthy selections include Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas, the riotous A Christmas Story, Die Hard (yes that is a Christmas movie and I will not argue with you otherwise) and two contemporary selections are Love, Actually and The Holiday. My choice has always been Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version of Little Women.

Filmed in and around Victoria, British Columbia, an afternoon’s ferry ride away from where I live, this version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic stars Winona Ryder in her career-best performance as Jo March. For all of the hoopla surrounding her status as the “It Girl” of the 90s, this was the one role that should have earned her an Academy Award (she received a Best Actress nomination). The magical cast includes Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Clare Danes as the ill-fated Beth, Trini Alvarado as prim-and-proper Meg, a very young Kirsten Dunst sharing the role of Amy with Samantha Mathis, Gabriel Byrne as Professor Friedrich, Eric Stoltz as the tutor Meg marries, the late comic actress Mary Wickes as Aunt March and Christian Bale as Laurie. There has, at no other time in history, been such a completely perfect cast assembled to deliver breath and life to Alcott’s beloved characters.

Call the neighbours! Spreading Christmas cheer
The tale of young girls growing into adulthood is a well-known one. The March family’s father is a general and often away at the front lines, fighting for the North in the Civil War. Money is tight in those days, and having sausages and tangerines at Christmastime were luxuries. Without career prospects available to women in that era, the March daughters bravely take on odd jobs, watch the home, attend school and eventually take on unorthodox but enterprising ventures for themselves in that era. None of the March girls sit around waiting for husbands, for they are too busy staging plays for their own entertainment, writing short stories for publication (this is Jo’s vocation), making do with what they have in terms of wartime supplies in the house, and generally supporting one another. Seeing the way the actors interact, one could imagine that this was the template in contemporary fiction for the concept of “sisterhood” (and that doesn’t include mani-pedis or shopping detox).

Bale (Laurie) and Ryder (Jo)
There’s a strong feminist undercurrent flowing throughout the film. Jo is played with the right amount of feistiness and enterprise by Ryder, the result being a pre-feminist hero doesn’t suffer fools, but who trusts herself thoroughly and able to take constructive criticism, no matter how headstrong she might be at times. When the film was released at Christmas 1994, critics complained that it was somewhat anachronistic due to the lessons Marmee imparts to her daughters. I always got the sense that it was mostly the male critics who were too busy worshipping Tarantino’s then-new Pulp Fiction and dismissing this version as being too much like Murphy Brown. What was wrong with imparting wisdom such as the now oft-quoted Dr. Seuss truism about never minding the people who don’t matter? I could always tell in some of the less flattering reviews that none of these critics have actually read Alcott’s original novel, or if they did, they dismissed it as “girls’ stuff”. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes on playing Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep remarked that her female characters are always described as being “strong-minded”, and yet this adjective never applied to male actors. Using that same logic, I deduce that perhaps contemporary critics when Little Women was released felt the same urge to use that descriptor needlessly and mistakenly assumed it was “anachronistically feminist” or some such nonsense. Perhaps Alcott herself was somewhat progressive to begin with, did you ever think about that?

Bale with Mathis (Amy)
Before I get carried away with praising the film’s virtues, I have to emphasize why Little Women places so highly on my Christmas movie list. Set in perpetual snow in Concord, Boston and New York, I’ve always had a soft spot for a New England Christmas and this is one of the films that visually capture the region at its best. There is no detail left unattended which was pitch-perfect, from the dinner forks at both grand parties and humble family meals to the small details in the March home and Jo’s Manhattan apartment. Above all, there remains the family unit as it expands and contracts to include friends, neighbours and in-laws. No matter how bad things got during the Civil War, the family unit clung together at Christmas and celebrated the occasion. One year, General March himself makes a surprise return to the home.

Perhaps the film’s most endearing quality is how genuine the relationships are. These aren’t actors playacting a clan, they somehow interact in such a way that they might have been of the same biological parents, or were separated at birth and brought together by Columbia Pictures. Alcott’s work might have been prone to melodrama, given the saga and cycle of births, deaths, long-term illnesses, marriages, graduations and other life-altering events one should expect in family sagas, but her genuine affection for the March family keeps the work from dissolving into a period-piece telenovela. The cast brings Robin Swicord’s immaculate script to life, embodying each distinct sister’s hopes, dreams and disappointments so organically that we no longer see performance, but growth over the years. These fictional sisters are so memorable that they make “reality” stars composed of actual biological siblings seem artificial in comparison, as if they were conditioned to behave in front of a camera. The March sisters would never do that, because they’re too busy laughing, writing plays, visiting, working and surviving to have time for such trifles. The film abhors trifles and teaches, without preaching, real value and necessity. This is miles away from the entitlement mentality one sees in most romantic comedies about “real women” today and, let’s face it, the Marches didn’t live within easy access to a Nordstrom’s or Barneys.

Little Women is one of the ultimate holiday films and gives dignity to the term “family movie” without making it sappy, manipulative or manufactured. It gathers its laughs organically and earns its tears honestly. It speaks to one’s capabilities and fosters vocations, not pipe dreams and delusions of grandeur. Above all, it’s endearing, timeless and a modern film classic for the ages.