Female Filmmaker Friday: Little Women, 1994 (dir. Gillian Armstrong)

Full disclosure: I have not actually read Louisa May Alcott’s book (it’s the first thing I am going to read in 2015, though.) I have, however, seen Gillian Armstrong’s masterpiece more times than any other movie. I first saw it when it was in theaters. I went with my mother and we both loved it so much and when it was over she told me all about how much she loved the book (and its sequel), and yet for some reason I still haven’t read the book! *holds head in shame* This movie celebrates its 20th anniversary on Sunday and as far as I can tell the studio that has the distribution rights doesn’t give a hoot and isn’t doing anything for it; no anniversary Blu-ray, no anniversary screenings in LA, nothing! So I thought I would pay tribute to this beautiful film by writing about it for Female Filmmaker Friday right around its anniversary.


Like I said, I’ve seen this more times than any other movie (the only thing that comes close is probably Pretty in Pink); I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen it. I wore my VHS tape out. The DVD I have is barely ever in its spot on my shelf because it’s nearly perpetually in my player. It’s one of those movies that I have completely memorized and people are lucky they never watch it with me, or they’d hear me saying all the lines. This movie had a huge impact on me growing up for several reasons. The main one being how fucking badass Jo March is and how perfect Winona Ryder is in this role (for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination). This movie was made in the height of 90s grrrl power feminism and it is so full of positive messages for young women, so when you see it and you are 8, it really influences how you look at yourself and your place in the world. I would also like to point out how female centric this production was: Louisa May Alcott wrote the book, Robin Swicord wrote the screenplay, Denise Di Novi produced the film and Gillian Armstrong directed it. I think all of this positive female energy really shows in the performances Armstrong got from all the actresses. You can tell they are feel so safe and free and the result is an entire cast baring their souls.


It should really be a perennial Christmas classic by now, as it opens on Christmas Eve and then has another really great Christmas scene (which I will get to in a bit). From the beginning of the film, we get to know each of the four March sisters (Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes and Kirsten Dunst) very well, as well as their mother Marmee (Susan Sarandon). We understand their family dynamic and boy if it doesn’t make you wish you had sisters, I don’t know what would.


One theme that shows up throughout the film is the importance of hair and how it is a quality that society deems so important for women. When Jo and Meg are getting ready to go to Belle Gardner’s engagement party, Jo accidentally burns off Meg’s front curl (“You’ve ruined me!”). Hair will show up several more times throughout the movie. Often, women are made distinct from men through our hair, whether it’s by length or by how we’ve styled it. I’m sure there’s a great paper to be written about this film’s use of hair and grooming.


So at the party, Jo meets Laurie (Christian Bale) and they are too cute together. This has caused many camps to think that Jo should be with Laurie, but you are all wrong and they are obviously just good friends! I love this shot in particular because I think it really encapsulates Jo’s spirit. She’s a little disheveled, her hair is a mess, but her eyes are shining so bright and she is so full of life. I think Winona Ryder gives one of the greatest, most spirited performances ever in this film.


Let’s talk about how important this close up of a cat in a bonnet is. Look. At. It. Also, I love all the scenes with them acting out Jo’s plays. I definitely was one to play make believe a lot as a kid (heck, I still do!), but I never had a group of sisters to play with and every time I watched this film, I longed for companions as wonderful as Jo had.


Also let’s talk about Amy. I sure hope she’s more palatable in the book, because she is so awful in movie. I mean, she’s just a little girl and she’s desperate for attention, but shit girl do not burn your sister’s book! That’s hours and hours of hard work you just destroyed! Ugh! Also, stop putting clothespins on your nose! That’s not how plastic surgery works! Actually, I’m not really going to talk much about grown up Amy (Samantha Mathis), because I really don’t like her performance, nor am I too comfortable with the whole Amy-Fred Vaughn-Laurie thing. It creeps me out. Maybe it’s less creepy in the book (maybe it’s more creepy?!). That said, Kirsten Dunst is great and this is the same year she killed it (literally) in Interview With The Vampire, so good on her.


So obviously, Jo’s anger at Amy is totally justified and I would act the same way after such an act of aggression, but then when Amy almost dies falling into the ice water on Walden Pond, Jo doesn’t even hesitate to stop being mad at her little sister. This shows you how deep sororal and familial love goes. It’s instinctive. It also shows you how it’s really you who chooses to be mad, which also means it’s you who can choose not to be mad in any given situation.


I love this scene. Quilts and kittens and sisters! Everyone is so cozy and happy! Jo’s writing! It’s great.


Then we have Sally Moffat’s coming out party in Boston. Meg goes alone. Her dress is not good enough for Society. It’s an afternoon dress! It’s not silk! We’re already getting a glimpse into the world of Society (the one that Edith Wharton so wonderfully lampoons in almost all of her novels) and how everything must be just-so with them. Meg gets a corset, Meg gets a low-cut dress, Meg gets makeup, Meg gets her hair done up. Meg gets put on display. This is how women in Society get husbands and this is Meg’s one chance to meet a rich man and save her family. Luckily, Laurie’s there to remind her that her family doesn’t give a hoot about her meeting a rich man and “saving the family.” When we get back to Orchard House, the scene starts with this shot of the dress, which Meg did not wear (but Amy does in a scene set a few years later).


Marmee discusses the unfair world in which Meg and Jo have been born. During this scene, we get another glimpse into a grooming ritual – Marmee trying to braid Jo’s hair (she’s so figity!). I always loved this scene 1) because it reminded me of me and my mother when she used to comb out my hair and 2) Marmee is so wise about how women are treated in society, but she also very gently reminds Meg that she is more than just a pretty face and how important it is to know that about yourself. I think this is still a huge problem for a lot of women – knowing their worth in relation to themselves and not in relation to their beauty or their relationships with other people (wife, mother, sister, friend). It’s a struggle we’re still slowing fighting.


Jo’s one beauty! Cut off! She looks so cute with her hair short, though. In another shot a little bit later you see Laurie laughing at her haircut (the jerk!) and then the next scene she’s crying and Beth asks her if she’s thinking of her father and she says “No. My hair,” and then the two share a nice laugh. It’s a great moment. Later, when her father returns, the first thing he says to Jo about her hair is, “Well, it could become the fashion.” What a nice thing to say! This is such a loving, positive portrayal of family throughout the film (complete with little quarrels). It’s just so wonderful.


If you are not deeply moved when Beth is presented the fancy piano after having almost died and then her voice cracks from happiness when she says “thank you”, you are the frozen dead. God, this whole sequence is just so great. Jo singing along to the Christmas carol with such gusto! She’s the best.


I had to include this shot. There’s a lot of great shots of food in this movie, but this part may well be my favorite. Also, during this scene we get a great discussion of marriage. I like that Armstrong (or Alcott) chose to set this scene about domesticity in the kitchen, while the women prepare a sweet cake. There’s something in that, I’m sure.


After this scene, we cut to four years later. Meg has married John Brooke (Eric Stotlz), Amy is now played by Samantha Mathis and Laurie has graduated from college. He has to go learn the business and he asks Jo to marry him in the most perfectly botched proposal of all time. Also he cries and it’s great. What I love so much about this scene is that Jo knows herself so well that she knows what she feels for Laurie is friendship and not love. Laurie, on the other hand, can’t quite distinguish between the two. Her rejection is so thoughtful and so logical, and I guess Laurie’s acceptance is equally so.


This screenshot is everything. I don’t know how many times I have felt this way in life (still do sometimes!) Oh Jo, you are just too good for this world! It must have been so shocking for Marmee to let Jo go off to NYC in the 1860s! We take it for granted that working girls go off to the big city in search of a career (and sometimes a career in order to meet their husband and stop working). There’s an entire genre of books from the mid-century about this. Marmee’s friend even says Jo’s come to NYC to meet her husband and that’ll be that.


I would begrudge the film that that is really what happens if it weren’t for a few things. 1) It’s Gabriel Byrne, 2) he’s really her match in every way and 3) they’ll both continue working. This is the first shot we get of Prof. Bhaer. He is so hot. Like, I fell in love instantly and have been swooning over Gabriel Byrne in this movie for twenty years. This is a major upgrade for Jo and she hasn’t even spoken to him yet.


Then they actually meet (oh yes, it’s a cute-meet) and realize they are soul mates of the best kind. Maybe this sets unrealistic standards, or maybe it just helps keep people like me determined to wait until we get someone as intellectually perfect for us as Jo found in Prof. Bhaer. I don’t have an answer, but I do share an apartment with a cat. Haha. That said, look at this man. LOOK AT HIM. He quotes Walt Whitman. He sold everything he owns to come to America except his damn books. He makes damn fine coffee. He’s got the darkest black hair and the bluest of blue eyes. He gives Jo his opinion on her work, but tells her ultimately it is up to her to please herself with her own work, not him or other people. HE IS PERFECTION.


Let’s talk about when Jo totally schools a room full of white men about suffrage. There are several moments like this in Little Women and this was such an important film for me to see at a young age. It showed me wonderfully strong, somewhat flawed women who were going to change the world and who saw the illogical way women are treated and called the world out on it. Every eight-year-old girl should have a movie come into their lives that is this powerful, this pro-woman and this insightful into family, politics, love and everything in between.


And then you get the scene where Prof. Bhaer takes Jo to the opera, only they are up in the wings and they totally make out. This scene is so hot. This scene is intellectual porn. This scene makes all first dates look like crap. Step it up, guys!


Ugh, then Jo has to go home because Beth is dying and every single person is now sobbing because Beth’s death scene is so perfectly done and Claire Danes hits all the right notes and let’s all just sob.


Keep sobbing.


Then take all that grief and dig deep into your soul and bare it on paper and write the story you were born to write and impress everyone with your depth and insight and pay tribute to your sister and make her immortal, becoming the great writer she always knew you would be.


There’s a line when Aunt March (Mary Wickes) has died and left her house to Jo that I find myself repeating often. Marmee says something like, “What could the poor girl have been thinking?” and Jo replies that she probably felt sorry for her, then in Aunt March’s voice says, “Homeless decrepit spinster!” It is wonderful. We never really get to see how large the house is from the inside, but early on in the film we get a good look at the outside and it’s clearly a ridiculously enormous house.


Then we get to the most perfect climax ever. Meg’s had twins, Amy and Laurie are married (creeeeepy) and Jo has found out her book is going to be published, but due to a misunderstanding Prof. Bhaer thinks she is the one married to Laurie and Jo has to literally run after him in the rain. It’s a beautiful ending. We get Jo’s shining eyes again (ah, Winona Ryder! you are the best!) and we get Prof. Bhaer being all romantic and logical and you’re just like, “Come back you idiot! You know she loves you!” (at least, I always scream this).


Like I said earlier, I haven’t read the book (yet!), but I do know the end of the film is verbatim how the book ends and if you think it’s cheesy and not the most romantic thing ever you can go jump off a cliff right now because you don’t deserve this perfection!


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on December 19, 2014, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. You’re right about the movie making you want sisters. I have sisters, but they’re much older and felt like babysitters when I was little.

    I love this movie too. I feel bad about hating Winona when I went through my Johnny Depp phase 😦

    I think Marmee is based on Louisa May Alcotts mother. Her father never made much money and they were helped by Ralph Waldo Emerson, but they were still kind of poor. Abby May Alcott was one of the first paid social workers. And Louisa sold stories to help out.

    I messed up my copy of the book when I kicked it off the couch while napping. The spine split because it was a huge copy. *Claire Danes cryface*

  2. Wonderful text! You really convey your love for this movie beautifully! I’m reminded how good Winona Ryder is, would like to see her in more movies nowadays.

  3. Nancy North-Gates

    I probably read this book a dozen times when I was a girl. I was unaware of the sociology behind it or how the author had such an unusual upbringing for a girl in the 19th century. But I loved the story, I loved this family. This movie version in my opinion, gives us the spirit of the book and not just the story. As a young woman I didn’t understand why Jo wouldn’t marry Laurie or why she married the professor. As an adult I see how the book explores women’s roles in a way that is just as important today as it was when it was written. This film is such a wonderful and faithful depiction of the book it should be as much of a classic as the book is.

  4. I love love LOVE this version. Though I have deep love, and so many memories of watching with my Grandmother, of the version with Katherine Hepburn, this one is my favorite. Perhaps it has to do with when it came out. I was 25, and it had its impact on a girl in her mid-twenties, too – a big one – especially as I was a young, single Mom with a daughter. Oh though, did it make me long for sisters, and for a Mother like THAT. Instead though, I think I strive to be a combination of Jo and Marmee in life, and in raising my kids.

    I have read the books a few times, but its been A LONG WHILE, and I cannot remember all that much about Amy, admittedly. I was always so taken by Jo.

    That scene with Beth and the piano, and Beth’s death, always have me in tears. Just your screen shots above had me in tears.

    This is a perfect essay that conveys your love of the film, and hits on so many key points to the movie, the performances, and the social commentary. It has me set on watching it this weekend with my daughters. Thanks for that!

  5. You totally reminded me that I need to get my DVD out and watch this one night in the upcoming week. Very great write-up of a very sweet movie. Wow, I didn’t know Mary Wickes played Aunt March!

  6. This is still my all-time favourite film! Love this tribute 🙂

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