Why Gillian Armstrong’s ‘Little Women’ Adaptation Reigns Supreme

As a child of the 90’s, there are certain biases I have. When I was in elementary school, I became obsessed with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. As such, I watched every adaptation of the book, of which there have been many, seven to be exact. The earliest was made in 1933 and the latest was made in 1994.

Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women was always my favorite. Why, you may well ask? Well, for a number of reasons. Winona Ryder (nuff said). Christian Bale before he was Christian Bale. Claire Danes. Kirsten Dunst. It’s just the greatest, nostalgia and feminism all wrapped up in one big 90’s package.

200-7.gif
The eternal question: Are you a Marmee or an Amy?

If you’re not familiar, Little Women follows the March family: Jo March, the headstrong writer (Winona Ryder), Meg March, the quiet beauty (Trini Alvarado), Beth March, the awkward, sweet one (Claire Danes) and Amy March, the precocious, slightly vapid one (Kirsten Dunst). It’s the story of their coming of age in the time after the Civil War. Be aware: coming of age drama ensues.

Here are a few reasons you need to watch Little Women ASAP:

The Cast

As I’ve discussed before, Winona Ryder is my 90’s spirit animal. She really is such a powerhouse actress and she’s never given a bad performance. As Jo, Ryder really shines. She so easily fits into this world and this character. This was Ryder in her early 20’s prime. She made Reality Bites this same year.

200.gif
This was her giving eyes to a young Christian Bale…

Trini Alvarado is also great as Meg. The role of Meg is semi-similar to Jane in Pride and Prejudice. She’s sweet and a bit bland. But, she’s a contrast to the colorful main character. Trini hasn’t done much as of late, but I really enjoyed her in this.

1426770589-meg-94.gif
How gorgeous is she??

Like Ryder, I’m a MAJOR fan of Claire Danes. This film was made the same year she made the one, seminal season of the best teen show ever made (yes, I know. BIG STATEMENT), My So-Called Life. At the time, Claire was just fourteen years old. Funnily enough, she actually beat out Alicia Silverstone for the part of Beth. She also competed against Silverstone for the role of Angela in My So-Called Life.

Lovely and heartbreaking, she plays Beth with poise and vulnerability. I can’t not cry watching her in this.

2-Little-Women-quotes.gif
I’M NOT CRYING. YOU’RE CRYING. #RealTalk

Ah, and then there’s little Kirsten Dunst. Watching her in this really makes you remember how old you are. She was twelve years old during the filming of this and she’s absolutely wonderful. She’s precocious and sweet and has SO much personality.

200w-5.gif
Look at those little ringlets!!

The Christian Bale of the Batman series is not my favorite. But, THIS Christian Bale I can get on board with. He was just twenty when he was in this and there was something very unpolished about him. He had a pronounced lisp in this film that’s just plain adorable.

200.gif
Just the HAIR. That is all.

In my research, I found that Olivia Hussey (aka Juliet) expressed interest in playing Marmee. Producers believed she looked too much like Trini Alvarado and so, Susan Sarandon ended up getting the part. And I have to say, all do respect to Olivia Hussey, but Sarandon was meant to play this part. She was everything the character needed to be. Feminist, sweet, tough…Sarandon!

little-women-pm.png
Aw, the March family…

Gabriel Byrne is also great as the Friedrich, the man who eventually steals Jo’s heart.

200w-4.gif
SO CUTE, even though he’s like twenty years older than her…

Oh, and yes, that is Eric Stoltz from Some Kind of Wonderful playing Meg’s love interest, John Brooke.

littlewomen6.png
I think the beard is what gets me the most. It’s just….eh.

The Script

Robin Swicord penned the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel and somehow, did so while giving the film a modern feel. It’s in the past and we feel that, but it’s also accessible, timeless. Swicord also wrote Matilda and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

What’s so wonderful about Alcott’s story is that she paints complex women. They are not one thing, they are many. And that’s specifically true with Jo who feels like a modern woman. The women are not there just for the “male” story. This is their story!

tumblr_n8yepbGofQ1r75ypeo1_r1_500.gif
#GirlPower

The Direction

Gillian Armstrong has mostly directed documentaries and I feel that some of her directorial choices mirror that. The film has a “fly on the wall” perspective at times. We feel like we’re apart of the March girl’s lives.

200w-3.gif
Beth!!! 😦

Its themes are ON POINT. 

I learned so much from Little Women as a young girl. It deals with loss and love and friendship and independence. But, what I mostly took away was a line that Marmee says to Jo and Meg:

decorative.gif
Time erodes all such beauty. You tell ’em Marmee!

It’s the only adaptation helmed by an all-female creative team!

This film is from the female perspective. It’s adapted from a book by a woman by a woman. It’s directed by a woman. It’s produced by a woman. This doesn’t negate the value in previous adaptations, but there is something to be said about women telling stories about women. During the studio era, many “women’s films” were directed and written by men. Again, not saying that makes them bad, but it does make them different.

Women still have a hard time getting green-lit as directors.

tumblr_ndvsqzTRuu1tg3wy3o1_400.gif
This film celebrates women in all aspects!

It’s inspiring, genuine and all kinds of nostalgic.

This is one of my favorite films to watch during the holiday season. It captures so much about growing up and has some wonderful performances. I’m pretty sure I wanted to be a writer because of Jo March (lol, I know I’m not the only one).

If you’ve never seen it, put it on your list. A true modern classic.

 

Pictures and Gifs property of Columbia Pictures.

Girls Gif property of HBO.

Advertisements

The major momma drama of ‘Mildred Pierce’

One of my biggest pet peeves in talking to my peers about classic film is when they tell me, “How can you like movies without complex female characters?” I’m not sure where this assumption started, but a lot of people believe that there is a lack of strong female characters in classic cinema.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Especially in the pre-code era, complex women were everywhere! If you don’t believe me, just look up Baby Face or The Divorcee. The movie I want to discuss today, Mildred Pierce, is ALL about complicated women.

I first saw this movie back in high school. I didn’t know anything about it and so, each melodramatic twist hit me hard! What surprised me the most was that the film didn’t shy away from making the characters unlikable. Even the titular Mildred is far from being a perfect person!

If you’re not familiar, Mildred Pierce, made in 1945, follows Mildred (Joan Crawford), a mother blinded by the love for her two daughters, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). When she splits with her husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), Mildred works to give her daughters the life she believes they deserve. She becomes a successful businesswoman and even finds a new man, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), but is it enough to win her daughters’ respect and love? Let’s just say, lots of momma drama ensues!

Here are just a few reasons you need to watch Mildred Pierce NOW:

The Cast

Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her career-defining performance as Mildred, but she was not the original choice for the role. In fact, they offered the role to three other actresses including Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck before finally offering it to Joan. Michael Curtiz, the film’s director thought Stanwyck a has-been and apparently really didn’t like her shoulder pads. She surprised them all by giving a truly Oscar-worthy, nuanced performance as Mildred.

tumblr_mmyexkV0Wu1rgrqh0o1_1280.gif
And her fashion is on point too, no?

I had the pleasure of seeing this film at the TCM Film Festival a few years back with Ann Blyth in attendance for a Q&A afterwards. Blyth was just seventeen years old when she played Veda, Mildred’s vapid, beautiful daughter. She’s deliciously evil and obnoxious. Apparently, the Academy thought so as well since they gave her an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress.

Of working with Crawford, Blyth “…remembered her as “the kindest, most helpful human being I’ve ever worked with. We remained friends for many years after the film. I never knew that other Joan Crawford that people wrote about (Blyth, TCM Article).”

200.gif
THAT FAMOUS SLAP.

Also, this is a fascinating piece TCM put together a few years ago. Lots of interesting tidbits! Ann talks about THE SLAP. It’s great.

Eve Arden is also wonderful as Ida, Mildred’s business party and best friend. She takes snark to a whole new level.

tumblr_nzdq6rkY4M1qicfexo1_500.gif
Mildred doesn’t look too happy about this toast.

Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Bruce Bennett, and Jo Ann Marlowe also give great performances.

The Script

The script was based on a James M. Cain novel. He also wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Mildred Pierce wasn’t one of his bestselling novels, but nevertheless, it caught the attention of producer Jerry Wald, who took charge of the project.

There’s much debate about whether the film is really a film noir or a women’s melodrama. Certainly, the subject matter seems more female oriented than most film noirs. But, still, the main plot surrounds a murder (very film noir). Certainly, this film is more a character drama than anything else. Mildred is fascinating. She’s not a bad person. But, she does do bad things for her daughter. She has blinders on, only seeing the goal of trying to provide for her daughter.

Blyth’s Veda is similarly complex. We wonder how she became this way, this self centered, money hungry young girl. She will, like Mildred, go to any lengths to achieve her goal, even if that means spurning her mother. But, there are moments when she seems human and child-like, and that makes her difficult to hate completely.

To me, the film feels like it’s partially about not seeing what’s really there. To an extent, we see what we want to see, in our family members especially. When Mildred really does see Veda, it’s devastating.

giphy-1.gif
Just a mother trying to provide for her daughter…

The Direction

Michael Curtiz’s name is not as well known as it should be. After all, he directed such classics as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy. He apparently did not see eye to eye with Crawford, “…referring to her as “Phony Joanie” and “the rotten bitch,” laying into her mercilessly in front of cast and crew (Rob Nixon and Stephanie Thames, TCM Article).” They apparently did build a respect as the film went on, but Jerry Wald often acted as referee between them. Despite the feeling behind the scenes, the film Curtiz made is nuanced and masterfully directed. Given the fact that it was so female-oriented, I thought he did a great job portraying their struggles without belittling them.

giphy-3.gif
Bills, bills, bills. I feel you, Mildred.

The Score

Max Steiner is most well known for scoring Gone with the Wind, which makes complete sense when you listen to Mildred Pierce‘s score. It has an epic quality to it. There are moments of the film which may have benefited from a lack of score, but still, Steiner’s score is pretty hard to hate. It lends a dramatic quality to literally every line.

The Cinematography

Like the score, Mildred Pierce also borrowed Gone with the Wind DP Ernest Haller. Haller also shot Rebel Without a Cause and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in his long career. Film noir, despite the way it’s discussed now, is really a style. Haller helps create that style, the shadowy darkness. The black and white is gorgeous and haunting.

mildred-pierce-gif-1503.gif
Just look at the water…HAUNTING, amiright?

It’s a bombastic, affecting, female-driven film noir.

You watch this movie now and you can’t not be amazed – that they got the story and dialogue past the censors, that Crawford and Blyth are SO good, and that it is completely female driven. It was a true game-changer. It revitalized Crawford’s career and started Blyth’s. Is it melodramatic? Yes, of course. But, that’s the fun of it.

The book was remade into a miniseries by HBO in 2011 and although I love Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood, the movie still reigns supreme. If you’ve never seen Mildred Pierce, you’re in for a treat and some really fun momma drama!

200-1.gif
Is it wrong that I’m distracted by how cute her dress is?

Vintage trailer below:

BONUS: I came across this wonderful parody of Mildred Pierce, which was done on the Carol Burnett show in the 1970’s. Carol as Joan is ON POINT. 

Images and gifs property of Warner Bros. Pictures.