Saturday, January 4, 2020
Greta Gerwig | Little Women
the feminine gaze
Greta Gerwig (writer, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott) and director Little Women / 2019
I have now seen three versions of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, Little Women—there are been seven film versions over the years—and I particularly loved George Cukor’s 1933 version with Katherine Hepburn as the central character Jo; yet the 1944 edition, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, featuring Janet Leigh, June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret O’Brien is certainly worth reviewing.
For a long while now, Little Women, both the films and the original novel, while beloved by millions of women, has been belittled as a “womens’ film” by males. And the early morning showing of the 2019 version at Los Angeles’ Landmark theater, which I attended with two other males, my husband Howard and our friend Pablo, was made up mostly of older women.
I’ll get those reservations out of the way first.
Pablo felt, somewhat justifiably, that despite the character’s constant declarations of their poverty, they lived in a grand, well decorated house, with generally good meals—except when the girl’s mother Marmee (a wonderful Laura Dern) determines to deliver their Christmas breakfast to their desperately poor neighbors, the Hummels. Yet they return home to a glorious breakfast provided by their wealthy next-door neighbors, the Laurence’s, headed by the slightly curmudgeonly, but still loving Chris Cooper.
Pablo expressed near shock—thanks to the production designer Jess Conchor and set designer Claire Kaufman—for their images of the spacious clapboard home, which they have filled up with lovely possessions.
“I never lived in such a large, comfortable house,” he emphatically proclaimed—despite the fact that he grew up in one of the intentionally ragtag individual canyon homes in Topanga, abutting Malibu mansions. Pablo grew up as a Pacific blue-water surfer. I grew up by a now algae-laced lake, once called “Clear Lake,” one of only a few natural bodies of water in the state of Iowa.
I too did not grow up in such a sprawling house; although I lived in several very comfortable suburban homes. And I attempted to explain to him that in the mid-19th century, when this work takes place, even the middle class, unlike the Hummels, could afford the construction of such family-friendly houses.
For one of our most special and lovely suburban houses—split-level with a full basement, into which I moved out of sleeping in a bunk-bed with my brother—in the late 1950s my parents, living on an small-town educator’s limited salary, had a home especially built for them for about $10,000. It’s difficult to explain to younger people how truly affordable housing and food once was. Howard’s parents’ wonderful Pikesville (Baltimore) home (a home I still dream about) was purchased for on a mortgage for about $15,000.
In reality, the plain-living transcendental-believing Alcotts moved in and out of houses at least 30 times over a few years, often, in accordant with their beliefs, living in communal structures. Father March, after all, was close friends, as were his daughters, with other like-minded literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne (to whom they sold one of their many houses), Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, and Henry David Thoreau. These were not people who lived a celebratory wealthy life.
Moreover, their father during the time of the fiction, was fighting in the Civil War (the Alcotts had long been abolitionists, with their houses serving, at times, as part of the underground railway).
There was no money coming in except for what Gerwig fails to show, Jo and her sisters’ collective work as seamstresses, while Jo (Saoirse Ronan) (the closest we get to Alcott herself) worked as a governess, domestic helper, and at other odd jobs.
In the first scene we encounter her in the film, seven years after the central action of the movie, is a desperate one, as she takes one of her stories to the offices of a publisher to help support her family, for which after heavy editing (the editor played by Tracy Letts), gives her $20.00, enough to allow them, in those days, to survive for a few more months. This scene is right out of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, where a widow sits outside a publisher’s door for hours so that she might show him the story she has written about a sailor’s bawdy sea-tale. She too survives from her patience for the male gaze.
Presumably the wealthy Aunt March (played by Meryl Streep, channeling Maggie Smith) also contributed some income into their nearly penniless lives.
But, finally, money for Jo and for the other March sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), was not so much a desperate desire—particularly given their Transcendentalist upbringing—but an attempt to not be the object of desire of that “male gaze.” Money might free them all from the slavery of being a wife while the men moved out into the worlds denied to them. Certainly, the incredible Marmee, long-locked into just such a relationship, has grown somewhat bitter about the transaction, which she expresses to Jo in a gentle conversation, reporting that she has been angry every day of her life. When her husband finally returns home from the war, she expresses the fact that she is now able to speak out her anger directly to his face, an almost fierce expression you might not have expected.
Although not all of the sisters quite agree with Jo’s forcibly feminist perspectives, they all feel free to reject the notions that “little women” (a quite dislikeable label given them by their father) should be subject to the males in their lives. Jo refuses the likeable (and loveable) Laurie Laurence’s (beautifully played by a quite clumsy and gangling Timothée Chalamet, far from the normal standard male, with whom anyone might fall in love) marriage proposal; and Amy, as a young artist taken to France by her aunt, rejects the proposal of the handsome and very wealthy Fred Vaughn (Dash Barber), and the man she later does eventually marry, Laurie. Meg, the eldest, happily marries the poorest man available, John Brooke (James Norton) to suffer, like her own mother, over even the possibility of buying a beautiful piece of fabric from which with she might create a dress. She sells it in order to help her husband and her survive.
These are not at all, in Gerwig’s vision, “little women,” but independent women who each make their own choices, sometimes against all the values of the time (represented best by their wealthy aunt, who reminds me, a bit, of the wealthy but cynical aunt of Colette’s Gigi of a later century) who advises her niece Amy to marry well so that she might live, as the aunt has, a life of luxury, enabling her to make her own—quite preposterous and bigoted—assumptions about life and love.
And, as for many middle-class women of the 19th of the Victorian age, despite their attempts to free themselves from relationships which close them off from their own embracement’s of the world at large, they are basically, as Alcott herself argued for, allowed to run (she literally argued for young girls to run, an impossible concept at the time), to race into a love of their own making.
Howard found the first scenes of the film, moving between the time between the past and the present of Alcott’s fiction, as “jumpy” and “choppy,” not properly explaining the relationships between the past and the present of the tale itself.
I have to admit, I had read the reviews and was not all surprised about this, and was readily able to identity between the Jo who was attempting to sell herself to the publishing world, while still, a few moments later, encouraging her sisters, and with her sisterly permissions, Laurie, into her magical world. I can believe her early stories and plays were rather “awful,” filled as they were with the kind of imagined horror of writers like Brontë sister’s works. But I appreciated Gerwig’s attempt to demonstrate—and, yes, it was a demonstration—Jo’s entry into an entirely male-controlled world into which she was quite desperate to enter.
To me, those shifts in time, allowed me to comprehend Jo’s former passivity, the sale even of her hair to make things simply go on into a new world where she might be entitled, as in the last scenes of this film, to fight over royalties (6.6% is a paltry sum which I might, as a publisher myself, have never imagined offering an original author) and, most importantly, copyright about her final book, the effects of which we have just witnessed; surely her family supported themselves for years because of her decisions.
Past and present, in this film, fuse. There can be no difference, particularly when the publisher demands that her own semi-autobiographical story be changed to end in a marriage that Jo (Alcott) never engaged in.
Well, it’s a truly lovely ending, under the umbrella, when Jo runs to retrieve her absolutely beautiful young professor friend whom she has met in her New York boarding house, Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). I certainly might have run after him, but in truth, Louisa May Alcott never did. She remained unmarried for the rest of her life, although she did adopt her youngest sister’s daughter, Lulu, after that sister died. Death is also an important issue of Alcott’s work. She herself nearly died from Scarlet Fever, something never revealed in any of the Little Women movies. Women did not have an easy time in the mid-1800s.
Which brings us to Pablo’s final question: “Do you think, given all of the sisterly kissing, the demand that, when Meg announces that she is getting married, that she and Jo should marry and run away together, that Alcott was lesbian? I kind of poo-pooed the question, arguing that Jo’s feminist proclamations were not truly a statement of lesbianism—this a strange reaction, I now perceive from one who has reread many a seemingly “straight” work with gay and LBGTQ associations.
In fact, I might have been wrong. Consulting many other commentaries, I discovered that indeed Louisa May might have been inclined toward her sisterly sex. Indeed, Alcott herself expressed in writing: "I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul put by some freak of nature into a woman's body. … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
As the scholar Caroll Smith-Rosenberg has perceived from her extensive study of letters between 19th century women, we have to be careful with our easy evaluations of such sexual declamations:
Considered perfectly proper for that era, affection was displayed in overtly
physical ways; such displays today would raise eyebrows: “Girls routinely
slept together, kissed and hugged each other.” Such affection stemmed
from deep friendships sharing mutual loneliness and emotional dependency.
Women leaned on each other for support, strength and companionship in a
world where there were few choices on how they should live.
Given the separate worlds in which males and females were allowed to inhabit in the 18th and 19th centuries, women often were involved with close sisterly and feminine allies, to whom they often wrote intimately loving letters, describing one another with sexually insinuative expressions, from our perspective, such as “dearest, darling, loving friend.” So too, might I add, did males. Lincoln slept regularly with a male friend, and the lyrics of that time, as I expressed in my collection of early American song lyrics, Listen to the Mockingbird from 2005 (which a great many of my friends could not comprehend why I published) were filled with gay and other LBGTQ references that might have been frowned upon by 20th and even 21st century perceptions. Relationships between the sexes, while not spoken of, were far more common that we now imagine.
Yet, I do think, in the end that Pablo was correct. Jo (Alcott) was basically a lesbian, even if she never had a sexual relationship. And even if we can never know the truth.
Despite my male friend’s complaints, however, I still believe this was one of the best films of the year. And I’m now determined to read the original.
Jo is a woman, as Laurie perceived but couldn’t quite perceive, with whom he’d like to simply argue, instead of life-time being a life-time obedient companion. He was right: Amy was the better bed-mate, even though Jo was his true intellectual equal, and we all know that they should have come together, so Gerwig’s film reveals, just to joust on the chairs and couches that Laurie can never quite ever sit comfortably in. Jo and he are equals; both unable to maintain their standard sexual positions in the society in which they exist. By marrying Amy, Laurie gives into the society. Jo remains always outside it: a source I am certain for so many women of having to abandon their lives to demanding males who dominated their future visions.
And I should mention the wonderful maid, Jayne Houdysell, one of my favorite actresses of the stage, who brings order to the March world in every way. She presents the idea of servitude in a completely new manner, showing us ways in which women who were basically excluded had an enormous power over the people with whom they lived.
The beautiful professor, on his way to California, is not the equal to Jo’s magical and ineffable wit. If they marry in the novel, they would never have been able to exist together in real life, Alcott (Gerwig perceiving this) with Jo’s somewhat angrily handing her final manuscript over to her publisher, must make yet another sacrifice to the male ego, insists: if I must reduce my character to marriage, I want the money in order to survive.
Yes, this is a story about exchange, about money, just as Nora perceived was what life was all about in Ibsen’s drama of twenty-nine years later. Ibsen’s major character had a far less chance of surviving in the world at large by slamming the door behind her husband than did these “little women” of the Civil War. But they did survive, they married, acted, wrote. They were survivors, so Gerwig nicely reveals, that would remain as models for women for centuries beyond. For they all found a way to become themselves.
Come on guys, come out of your closets and recognize what women have long ago perceived! You are sometimes only necessary attributes to the feminine gaze, a slightly temporary vision of what might be seen as a delightful prince.
Los Angeles, January 4, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).