Little Women 1994: Gillian Armstrong’s New-Old Classic with Winona Ryder

In Little Women, her classic 1868 novel about growing up and coming of age during the Civil War, Louisa May Alcott evoked a universal vision of Family and Home.

One hundred and twenty six years later, Columbia Pictures reopens the door on Little Women, Alcott’s compelling tale that has captured the imagination of millions of readers throughout the world.

Through her spirited literary rendition of her own highly individualistic family, Alcott told the domestic saga of the March Family, living in New England: an absent father who’s fighting in the war, a stern mother, and their four very different daughters.

Since the beginning of sound pictures, every generation saw its own movie version of Little Women.

In 1933, George Cukor made the first film at RKO, with Katharine Hepburn in the lead role, and Mervyn LeRoy directed June Allyson at MGM in 1949 in an all-star cast version that included Elizabeth Taylor.

Gillian Armstrong’s new, magical version expresses beautifully the enchanting years of adolescence, that crucial, often painful era between girlhood and womanhood. This handsomely produced period piece is one of the most emotionally effective and most intelligent big-screen presentations to have come out of Hollywood in years. Winona Ryder steps honorably into the role that Katharine Hepburn made her own in the RKO l933 version.

Little Women relates the dramas and adventures of the four March girls: the spirited Jo (Winona Ryder), the beautiful Meg (Trini Alvarado), the fragile Beth (Claire Danes) and the romantic Amy (Samantha Davis). A glowing depiction of nineteenth century life, the film serves as a tribute to family strength and female independence.

Bringing this memorable tale to life represents the collective effort of a talented group of women. Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (My Beautiful Career, Mrs. Soffel) directed the film, which is prodigiously produced by Denise Di Novi (Heathers, Batman Returns).

Little Women represents a personal journey for its filmmakers. Over a decade ago, an up-and-coming young screenwriter first spoke with an up-and-coming young development executive about their mutual passion for the novel. By l992, when pre-production began, Robin Swicord (The Perez Family) became established as a screen and television writer, and Amy Pascal became an executive vice-president of production at Columbia.

Producer Di Novi had similar conversations about Little Women with movie star Winona Ryder, with whom she had worked on the cult film Heathers and Tim Burton’s lovely fairy-tale, Edward Scissorhands. The two women agreed that for this material Gillian Armstrong was the perfect director, possessing a compatible vision and compassion for all the characters.

Directed by Gillian Armstrong

“I had already done a story about a young individualistic girl,” says Armstrong, “who, like Jo March, is out there searching to find her true self in My Brilliant Career,” the Australian movie that established Judy Davis as a major actress. “It was the theme of family, support and love–sisterly love in particular–that drew me to this film.”

Armstrong had reverence for the book and an immediate understanding of what made it important–and what made it fun. Perceiving its depth, she knew how to balance all the elements, avoiding, as she says, making a movie that was “too earnest or too silly.” Armstrong’s goal was “neither to make a message movie nor pure fluff.” Indeed, she found the perfect blend for a movie that is serious and comic, poetic and realistic–a meaningful entertainment for the whole family.

The prior casting of Winona Ryder as Jo March was compatible with Armstrong’s vision. “I’ve always admired her as an actress,” she says, “but I wanted to be sure in my heart that she was Jo.” “When I met Winona, I found that she was very passionate about the story and about making the film. I saw a face that I was desperate to capture in film. Winona has a true vivaciousness and lively sense of humor and energy that has never really been focused upon before. I found her to be totally inspiring and committed.”

Winona Ryder

For her part, Ryder fondly recalls her first meeting with Armstrong at a restaurant. “I basically begged her to do it,” says the gifted actress, “I bombarded her with compliments, but they were honest, for Gillian is incredibly talented.” Later, on the set, Armstrong revealed herself to be “strong and specific, knowing exactly what she wanted.” “Gillian is a rare director,” Ryder says, “one who’s great emotionally and visually.”

The book had a “tremendous impression” on Ryder, who read it when she was twelve. What the actress likes most about the novel is its subtle exploration of adolescence. “In most works,” she explains, “you’re either a girl or a woman–there’s nothing in between.”

Ryder related to the character of Jo in a more personal manner because both of her parents are writers. Like other women of her generation, she always had a romantic vision of the nineteenth century, “a time when people communicated on a more human level and attached stronger importance to family life.” The actress also talks about the significance of writing letters as an intimate mode of communication, reminding, “People wrote long personal letters in ink.”

While Little Women is not Ryder’s first period piece, she singles out its emphasis on language and dialogue–as opposed to a previous costume drama in which she appeared, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which director Francis Coppola made into a visual tour de force. “In this movie,” she says, “the emotions are more accessible, more on the surface than in The Age of Innocence, another Columbia period piece, directed by Martin Scorsese, for which Ryder won a well deserved Oscar nomination.

Kirsten Dunst

This Little Women is the first version in which two different actresses play Amy: Kirsten Dunst plays her at age twelve, and Samantha Mathis at sixteen. The double casting had the effect of greater authenticity and credibility than previous film versions, George Cukor’s l933 and Mervyn LeRoy’s l949 movies.

Dunst, who read the book four times, sees the March family very much like families today, “because the mother’s feminist perspective was so much ahead of her time. “I stuck more to the book than previous versions,” she says. Playing the cheeky Amy suited the young, energetic actress, who likes portraying precocious girls.

Coming off the intense experience of Interview with the Vampire, in which she co-starred with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, Dunst says “Little Women was a much more relaxed and pleasant experience. We spent two weeks in rehearsals, during which we got lessons in knitting, sewing and painting. The greatest challenge, however, was getting the dialect right, speaking properly; the way women spoke in the nineteenth century.

Gillian Armstrong brought her children to the set and so did Susan Sarandon, so they were all one big family. All the actresses talk about the bonding that they shared in this female-dominated picture. From the very beginning, there was “strong chemistry” among the girls. “We really got along very well,” recalls Ryder, “there was so much humor, so much fun on the set.”

Samantha Davis

Samantha Davis, who plays Amy as a young woman, didn’t read the book when she was young, but she says: “You can see why it’s a classic; it has so much to say about being a girl and becoming a woman. For Davis, “the book deals with timeless issues, like family love, it shows why it’s an important value to sustain.” “Though they seem too old-fashioned, they are actually timeless values,” says Mathis.

The film’s message, “be generous to your fellow men,” is universal, and so is the notion of experiencing the pain of loss. In the movie, Beth dies of Scarlett fever, but today people experience the loss of friends as result of AIDS.

Subtly feminist, though not preachy, Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women is a moving, passionately told story about women’s struggle to make their mark in a society that narrowly proscribed their roles.

There is not doubt that viewers of all ages will embrace the film’s charm; in fact, it’s easy to imagine women returning repeatedly to see it. Judging by the domestic response to Little Women, Columbia has a winner.