What to Watch
The end of the awards season brings a sense of deja vu with the Oscars, once again, failing to nominate a women for Best Director. In the history of the Oscars, only 5 women have been nominated to join the comfy boy’s club of Best Director. Kathryn Bigelow remains the only winner for Hurt Locker (2010).
Greta Gerwig is one of those 5 exclusive women, having been nominated for writing and directing the first of this week’s movie double, Lady Bird (2017). Saoirse Ronan plays seventeen year old Christine MacPherson, who prefers to be called “Lady Bird”. Her character finds life frustratingly restrictive in her Sacramento location and she is quite literally growing up “on the wrong side of the tracks”. She also endures a difficult relationship with her mother played brilliantly by Laurie Metcalf. The scenes between mother and daughter form the centre piece of the drama.
Gerwig grew up in Sacramento and her script clearly draws a lot from her own experience. Events take place in 2002, around the same time as Grewig herself was graduating from her Catholic high school. However the film is not autobiographical as Gerwig claims she was the polar opposite of the rebellious “Lady Bird”.
Lady Bird was Gerwig’s directorial debut and its success brought her well earned praise and attention. She had already established herself as an actress in Greenberg (2010) and Frances Ha (2012), both directed by her current partner, Noah Baumbach. They would have had an interesting night at the Oscars, as both had films nominated for Best Picture. They also both received writing nominations for those films: Baumbach, for his original screenplay for Marriage Story (2019), and Gerwig for her adapted screenplay for the next of our movie double, Little Women (2019).
Little Women (2019) is based on the much loved novel by Louisa May Alcott. The novel has already been the subject of 3 previous films and 2 television mini series. Little Women follows the lives of 4 sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March. It draws closely from Alcott’s own childhood – growing up with her sisters in Concord, Massachusetts at the time of the Civil War. The novel comes in two parts, the first (completed in 1868) details the girl’s childhood and the second, also known as Good Wives (1869) follows the sisters into adulthood and marriage. Gerwig’s approach differs from previous adaptations by presenting the story as a series of split timelines – taking in turn, portions from each part of the novel. She starts her movie with the girls in adulthood and proceeds to continually look back at an idealised and romantic childhood.
Saoirse Ronan is excellent in the lead role of Jo, but the outstanding performance here comes from Florence Pugh as Amy, the youngest March. For those familiar with the story, Amy is usually the least liked of the the sisters, considered spoilt and self-absorbed. Gerwig provides a deeper reading of Amy – by instilling in her a quietly observant insightfulness. She provides her with one the best lines of the movie, which she wrote herself. When Amy explains her intentions to their neighbour Laurie, she states that she always planned to marry ‘rich’ – because marriage is entirely a financial transaction for women. Gerwig says that Little Women is about authorship, ownership and most of all – money and its importance to women.
During Jo’s fledgeling attempts to become a writer, she is advised by her publisher Mr. Dashwood, that if a story was to involve a women then she would have to be married or dead by the end. It is to fulfil this requirement that Gerwig employs a necessary dues ex machina towards the end of the movie. A dues ex machina is a plot device where a chance occurrence allows for a resolution of an otherwise irresolvable situation. Hence a chance visit to the March family home by German professor, Friedrich Bhaer, provides the opportunity to resolve Jo’s marriage status – as she is currently single and certainly not dead.
Alcott’s Friedrich Bhaer is an older and gruffer German professor, whereas Gerwig’s Bhaer as played by Louis Garrel is quite the opposite. When questioned about this discrepancy, Gerwig’s responded that her Bhaer is simply better to look at. A very contemporary and liberated rationale that I’m sure Alcott in hindsight would approve of.