Critical Thought

Little Women (2019) “Oscar Moments”

I learned something about film in the early days of my cinephile life. When considering the skill of an actor, I tend to regard the whole of their work in a particular film – every nuance of every scene, many of which simply move along the plot. Some moments in film hit like a ton of bricks though, and an actor can convey the full meaning of a piece in just a few seconds of screen time.

These moments stick out as the “Oscar” moments. When an actor receives attention during award season, focus invariably goes to a key scene that encapsulates the beauty of the performance. This is not to say that winning an Oscar means that a performer is superb in a single scene and average for the rest, but that in every Oscar nominated performance one can turn to the source material and say, “This scene here – this is why he/she is a nominee”.

Jack Palance delivering the “One Thing” speech in City Slickers. Meryl Streep making the titular decision in Sophie’s Choice. Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables. Marisa Tomei’s “ticking clock” in My Cousin Vinny. These aren’t even the best examples – just some of the ones that stick out in my mind.

While Little Women did not yield Oscar nominations for every member of the cast (congratulations to Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh though!), the accomplishment of the film itself will warrant examination for years to come. The way Greta Gerwig restructured Louisa May Alcott’s narrative structure for the film added new depth and complexity to an already timeless tale.

Yes, I am biased. I cannot say enough about Little Women as a story, this film adaptation, Alcott, Gerwig, Ronan, Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timotheé Chalamet, Meryl Streep, or Chris Cooper. I wrote recently about the collision of a favourite story, a brilliant director, and what personally amounted to fan-casting the roles. In fact, that piece may be required reading to appreciate this one.

Today I want to focus less on the overall composition though and, in the spirit of awards season, identify the “Oscar moment” for each of the characters. With each of the main characters I found a point in the film that injected fresh life into my love of the story and the character, a point where I immediately felt, “That was ______’s moment.”

Here, I examine those moments by character and why the moment felt so profound.

But first, for those uninterested in also having to digest the other piece, it may be best to summarise a perspective of this particular film to understand why the chosen moments have such an impact.

Perfect Girls, Little Women

A Twitter peer helped me to articulate what made the 2019 film unique. Prior to the new adaptation, the version with which I was most familiar was the 1994 film. It’s entertaining, but not in the same league as the new version (for reasons that will appear below). The 1994 version is entertaining and reflected a rather literal translation of the novel to screen, albeit abridged for time as most novels are.

Straight away one found something special in the 2019 version because the events occurred out of sequence. While that may not register consciously for a casual viewer, film and literature fans alike understand the media to know that authors and directors only portray what matters. The decision to include or omit something, even from a single frame, has significance. Gerwig’s deliberate choice to rearrange the plot points signalled something important. This would not be a simple re-telling of Little Women.

Twitter user Frankie Thomas (@frankie_jay_tho) noticed the strong parallels with Gerwig’s preceding project Lady Bird: a young heroine who peaked as a teenager and finds herself consequently as an aimless young adult. The analysis contrasts Jo March’s childhood – the adoration of her writing and the March sisterhood – with her listlessness as live moves on from that. Meg marries, Beth falls ill, Amy, well, is Amy, and Jo watches everything slip away from her.

Unlike a character arc that sees a young heroine simply develop (and how I long interpreted Little Women, especially as it references Pilgrim’s Progress), the Gerwig approach seemed to present a heroine at her peak who faces the inevitable onset of change. In short, “They are not imperfect creatures fighting towards perfection; they are perfect beings struggling against the inevitable onset of imperfection.”

The analysis of characters occurred through that lens.

Marmie (Laura Dern)

Marmie March

Jo March: What is wrong with me? I’ve made so many resolutions and written sad notes and cried over my sins but it doesn’t seem to help. When I get in a passion I get so savage, I could hurt anyone and enjoy it.

Marmee March: You remind me of myself.

Jo March: But you’re never angry.

Marmee March: I’m angry nearly every day of my life.

Jo March: You are?

Marmee March: I’m not patient by nature, but with nearly forty years of effort I have learned to not let it get the better of me.

Jo March: I’ll do the same, then.

Marmee March: I hope you’ll do a great deal better than me. There are some natures too noble to curb, too lofty to bend.

In the 1994 film version, Susan Sarandon portrayed the matriarch in a strong albeit preachy sort of way. Her version of Marmie seemed before her time, a perhaps too on-the-nose take on Alcott’s feminism.

Laura Dern brought a healthy vulnerability to the role. She provided the strength, guidance, and example of moral character to the March girls that one expects of Marmie, but also came across as a genuine person. It’s the sort of imperfection that I came to understand in my own parents as I grew older, as they transformed from omniscient protectors to humanised caregivers. It made their love more apparent and, in the case of the film, helped to frame Jo’s journey by providing us with the already-adult version of a March woman at the time.

That was most clear during this exchange with Jo where she expressed how similar the two of them were and confessed to her own anger. This is her daughter experiencing the realisation that her mother is not perfect and, in that way, is perfect. Marmie is conveying to her daughter less an objective guidance about how to manage the situation and more the comfort that she’s been through it herself and come out okay.

It also speaks to the timelessness of the story as mother speaks to daughter in a period piece that remains as relevant to young women today.

Meg March (Emma Watson)

Meg March

Jo March: And you, you should be an actress and have a life on the stage. Let’s run away together.

Meg March: I want to get married.

Jo March: WHY?

Meg March: I love him.

Jo March: You will be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.

Meg March: Just because my dreams are not the same as yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. I want a family and a home and I’m not scared of working and struggling, but I want to do it with John.

Jo March: I just hate that you’re leaving me.

Meg March: Oh, Jo, I’m not leaving you. Besides, one day it will be your turn.

Jo March: I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe. I can’t believe childhood is over.

Meg March: It was going to end one way or another. And what a happy end.

Alcott and Gerwig use Meg’s character to great effect, presenting her with precisely enough time to have the desired impact on the story. Artistically, we have Meg the actor, Jo the writer, Beth the musician, and Amy the painter – their artistry and kinship matter a great deal to the story. We feel a lot of bonding between Meg and Jo as she features in the lead role for many of the plays Jo writes in their youth.

Meg also represents a traditional domestic role. While she speaks of wanting to be an actress in her youth, her true desire is to marry and have a family. Jo sees this as resignation, a final stake in the heart of youth. Her mother married and the March family often struggles financially.

We’ll come to Amy’s mercenary view of marriage later, but Meg’s character is important for two reasons. First, as the eldest March daughter she reflects the end of their collective youth. Her marriage and transition to adulthood breaks up the March troupe. The significance is clear earlier in the story as Jo rebels against even Meg’s interest in John Brooke.

Second, she represents a clear path to Jo – marriage. The best way for most women to secure their financial future at the time was marriage, and Jo already had the experience of her parents marriage. Now Meg was marrying for love and all knew that it would involve a degree of struggle (a struggle wonderfully captured by Meg’s purchase of fabric for a dress and the marital consequence later in the film). It presents an unflattering prospect for someone like Jo and therefore a perfect foil.

Jo March (Saoirse Ronan)

Jo March

Marmee March: What is it?

Jo March: Perhaps… perhaps I was too quick in turning him down.

Marmee March: Do you love him?

Jo March: If he asked me again, I think I would say yes… Do you think he’ll ask me again?

Marmee March: But do you love him?

Jo March: [Tearing up] I know that I care more to be loved. I want to be loved.

Marmee March: That is not the same as loving.

Jo March: Women, they have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But… I am so lonely.

Jo is of course the centrepiece of the entire film, our protagonist and heroine, so I will keep this part brief as to go into detail would be to analyse the entire film – the other piece covers that.

This scene reflected peak Jo. Strong and vulnerable, wanting to be loved and wanting to pursue her passions – especially at a time when pursuing her passion was not a reasonable goal for a woman. This scene was the emotional apex of that conflict.

Beth March (Eliza Scanlen)

Beth March

Beth March: It’s like the tide going out. It goes out slowly, but it can’t be stopped.

Jo March: I’ll stop it. I’ve stopped it before.

Beth’s role in the story is fitting for her character: quiet and useful to others. Alcott wrote of Beth, “There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

She is the catalyst reminding the sisters of what they have and what they mean to one another. For all of their sibling feuding, especially between Jo and Amy, things come back to a place of happiness around selfless Beth. Her illness is the thing that brings the family back together in the later stages, which Gerwig chooses also as the pivot point for her film.

Jo is returning to the March home for Beth, and the film takes up both the flashback and current sequences from there. This is where the entire movie surrounds the juxtaposition of the March girls and the young March women. Whereas the original story tells this all in chronological order, Gerwig transitions back and forth to great effect.

In a heartfelt moment on the beach where Beth compels Jo to write for her, she also delivers this line about the nature of her illness but whose subtext is their youth. Jo is working to make Beth better again, but she’s actively struggling against the onset of change, too. Relative to this perspective of the film, this moment between Jo and Beth perhaps reflects the most explicit take on the theme.

Amy March (Florence Pugh)

Amy March

Amy March: Well, I believe we have some power over who we love, it isn’t something that just happens to a person.

Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence: I think the poets might disagree.

Amy March: Well. I’m not a poet, I’m just a woman. And as a woman I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don’t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married. If we had children they would belong to him not me. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.

Thank you, Gerwig and Pugh. Perhaps because I identified so strongly with Jo in the original novel – and with Laurie who so loved Jo – I found Amy’s character annoying more often than not. It felt fitting. Amy was not annoying in a ‘poorly written character’ sense but in a quite realistic ‘younger sibling’ sense.

Jo wanted to write and was serious about her art. Amy wanted to paint in the sort of way someone might go through a photography phase. She wanted to do something artsy but was never a serious artist. She made moulds of her feet and obsessed about the state of her nose. Then, of course, was the whole episode with the limes and her petulant act with Jo’s manuscript.

In my early readings of Little Women, Amy represented little more than the nature of sisterhood and sibling rivalry. She existed to antagonise Jo, the hero of the story, much the way Aunt March did (all the more evident by Amy’s eventual trip to Europe – the two villains conspiring against dear Jo!).

Gerwig and Pugh transformed the character, enriched and deepened it. First, Amy’s transfixions took on a new degree of charm that I did not find in reading the novel or Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal. The version of Amy I knew was whiny and spoiled. This version of Amy seemed more inclined to say whatever popped into her head. She was impetuous but not irritating. Things happened according to a unique Amy logic and she followed them earnestly to whatever conclusion.

In this sense, her spirit matched that of Jo. Breaking down that barrier made it all the easier to re-frame other aspects of the story accordingly, so when Laurie eventually makes his initial proposal to Amy and she rejects him we do understand that it comes from constantly feeling as though she finishes second to Jo.

Amy wanted to hurt Jo and knew the only way to get to her like that was to target her writing, hence burning the manuscript. Nothing else would affect Jo so severely, and we know that Jo likewise becomes so preoccupied by her anger that she might do whatever awful thing inflicts damage to the person who caused it. Amy burning Jo’s manuscript is, incidentally, similar to the sort of thing Jo might have done to slight Amy. They are also brilliant foils.

She also follows through on her art, taking the painting to Europe where she comes to abandon it as unaccomplished. What’s more, the Amy already prone to flights of romantic fantasy shows in the described scene that she recognises the mercenary nature of marriage at the time. She could marry for love, like Meg, and struggle if the man did not possess a certain means (echoes of Austen); she could attempt to make her own way, like Jo, in which case anything she accomplished would still be the property of her husband.

In Gerwig’s adaptation, Amy elevates from the one March sister for which I do not care to possibly the most important character in the story (cue the countless Best Supporting Actress nominations for Florence Pugh – well deserved). Amy’s foil amplifies the theme of the adaptation to Oscar-worthy heights.

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