Some will hail the new “Little Women” a masterpiece, and others will prefer the beloved 1994 version. But fans were finally given the chance to see the film when it screened for journalists and Academy and guild members Wednesday night in Los Angeles. The audience was aglow over Greta Gerwig’s modern-feeling adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 coming-of-age classic.
The writer/director infuses the ensemble period piece with a contemporary sensibility that will usher this much-tread literary landmark into the hearts and minds of a new generation — and will resonate with awards voters as “Little Women” approaches its Christmas Day release from Sony.
After the screening at the Directors Guild of America theater, Gerwig was joined by her cast for a Q&A, including Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, and Laura Dern. Moderator Stacey Wilson Hunt introduced the night’s conversation by sharing “Little Women” producer Amy Pascal’s assessment of Gerwig’s vision as both “punk-rock and Shakespearean.”
“I don’t think anyone would describe me as punk-rock, and I would be so arrogant to call myself Shakespearean,” Gerwig said, but she did recall stressing the modernity of the story in her initial elevator pitch to producers.
“So much of the book is about money, and women, and art and money, and how do you make art if you don’t have money? When I went in to talk about the book, I said, ‘This is what I feel this film is really about,’” Gerwig said. “People remember the book as this pre-Victorian reality of everything being all tied up, but embedded in that is a lot [where] you forget how messy and wild it is.”
The film, like the novel, follows the story of Jo March, played by Ronan, as a young woman on her own path, uninterested in elegant society or marriage and determined to carve out a writing career despite pressures to conform in Civil War-era New England.
“What was so wonderful about working with [this character] and Greta was that we had both done a movie neither of us had done before,” Ronan said, working with Gerwig for the second time since their 2017 “Lady Bird,” which earned them both Academy Award nominations. “I had never ventured into something like ‘Lady Bird’ before, and it was Greta’s first film, and we were [then] going into this new thing, really excited, and to have the structure Greta gives you from one scene to the next, within that, you’ve got so much freedom to play and to mess it up.”
Wilson Webb/© 2019 CTMG, Inc.
Gerwig structures the film across two timelines that flow seamlessly together, so we see the four March sisters as strong-willed teenagers and twentysomethings, as well as younger, and perhaps not yet as wise.
Laura Dern’s warm matriarch Marmee also delivers timely lines that come straight from the book, such as, “I’ve been angry every day of my life” — not unlike her fierce Renata Klein on HBO’s “Big Little Lies.”
“The book allowed us into the truth of being what it means to be a mother raising these girls. I membered Marmee as angelic and omniscient. Greta wrote her wide-open, and revealed who she was in the book,” Dern said, remarking that the film touches on “things that are still complicated for people today … [the script] was so raw and bold, and, yes, punk-rock and Shakespearean.”
Meryl Streep, who plays the wealthy and hard-truth-espousing Aunt March, felt freed by Gerwig’s directorial approach. “She let me do what I wanted,” Streep said. “Aunt March is all about the money. It’s how the world measures value. She is the reality check on all the airy-fairy, highfalutin, idealistic people who populate her family, and that she basically underwrites.”
Florence Pugh, who excels as the bratty debutante Amy, delivers a rousing speech halfway through the film about women’s independence versus conformity that could land the 23-year-old English actress her first Academy Award nomination. Pugh felt liberated during rehearsals of Gerwig’s screenplay, which takes an almost Robert Altmanesque approach to the dialogue. Lines overlap one another to spark a feeling of spirited energy within the ensemble onscreen.
“The way that Greta wrote on the page, there would be lines literally on top of one another,” Pugh said. “I thought it was a mistake. I thought, ‘Oh, Greta, she’s forgot to press the space button again!’ … You’ve got all these accents and corsets and modern ways and old ways of talking.”
Timothée Chalamet, who plays well-to-do society love interest Laurie, allegedly swapped clothing with his co-star Ronan during filming in order to lean into his character. “I can’t say that it was our idea. It was Greta’s,” he said, also crediting costume designer Jacqueline Durran (Oscar winner for 2012’s “Anna Karenina”). “I’d get to my trailer and have three clothing options, and she would let us mismatch to find what would work.”
Other members of the cast also had their own particular ways of getting into character. “I will say, she ate Wendy’s one day,” Ronan said, pointing at Streep. “I was trying to save money,” Streep cracked, which is how she became the penny-pinching Aunt March.
“Saoirse and I would wrestle occasionally,” Pugh said. “One of the last weeks of shooting, it was the scene where we had to wrestle … we’d been wanting to fight for a really long time. Just before it started, I went up to her and said, ‘Hit me,’ and she’s like, ‘What?’ And I said ‘Hit me in the face.’ We double-checked with the camera guy, and we did it. It felt great.”
While the film’s ensemble certainly impresses, it’s the vivid period detail, from Durran’s mouthwatering costumes to Jess Gonchor’s meticulously mounted production design, that will also be catnip for Academy voters. Sony has a major holiday hit on its hands, and one of this awards season’s strongest late-breaking contenders.