NEW YORK CITY: There’s this incredibly remarkable scene in Greta Gerwig’s new film Little Women where Meryl Streep’s stubborn and straight-shooting character, Aunt March, has a talk with her young niece Amy. “The only way to be an unmarried woman is to be rich,” she advises, rather stiffly. “So you can live a better life than your poor Marmee.”
Aside from this scene being somewhat jarring for the 2020 viewer – we are, after all, used to seeing Streep overtly and progressively support the individual rights, plights and freedoms of all women in real life – Aunt March’s words ring true to the existence of women in rural New England in the 1860s.
Based on the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott and adapted to the screen by Gerwig, Little Women tells the beloved tale of four young sisters; writer Jo, romantic Meg, painter Amy and musician Beth. Each opinionated and spirited and determined to live their best lives with the cards they have been dealt, the film focuses on each of the them finding their independence and strength in a man’s world.
“As a woman, I don’t earn enough money – and when I’m married, any money I do earn becomes the man’s money,” screams Amy in another scene. “Don’t tell me marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is.”
Even before Gerwig demonstrated her powerful voice with Lady Bird, she told producer Amy Pascal she believed she was the right person to adapt Little Women. “I flung myself at it with everything I had,” says Gerwig. “I had a very specific idea of what it was about: It’s about women as artists and it’s about women and money.”
To Gerwig, who read the book countless times at different stages in her life, Alcott clearly chose the scarcity of money and its correlation to freedom as the deciding factor of fate in the March sisters’ lives. For 150 years, young girls have picked up Alcott’s book and experienced it at a time in their own lives when they would have their mother’s words in one ear and the world’s endless possibilities in their eyes. Could you carve out your own individual path without a man?
Of course you could, said the fearless Jo March, the fictional character who became a real-life heroine and is played defiantly by Saoirse Ronan in the film, out New Year’s Day in Australia. “I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for,” says Jo. “I’m sick of it.”
In fact, in the true spirit of Jo, Ronan told Gerwig she wanted that part and there was absolutely no one better to give it to. “[Greta and I] were doing press for Lady Bird and we were at an award show and I’d heard she was doing Little Women,” explains Ronan, smiling. “I progressively tapped her on the shoulder and said ‘I think I should be Jo’. Greta said ‘I’m going to go and think about it’. She said she didn’t do that but she did.”
On Saturday night, the red carpet was rolled out at the Museum Of Modern Art on 53rd street for the world premiere of Little Women. Fans lined up around the block in New York’s bitter December cold, each hoping for a glimpse of Ronan, Emma Watson (who plays Meg), Florence Pugh (who plays Amy), Australian actress Eliza Scanlan (who plays Beth), Timothee Chalamet (who plays Laurie), Dern (who plays the girls’ mother Marmee) or their fearless writer and director Gerwig.
As Dern arrives in a cobalt blue, sequinned, backless Ralph Lauren gown, she mingles with cast members and press as if it’s her own housewarming gathering. The 52-year-old Big Little Lies star is hugging Chalamet and listening intently as a Balenciaga-clad Watson showers her on-screen mother with praising words. She does so in the same heartfelt way Meg embraces her sisters. The cast reportedly haven’t seen Watson since filming wrapped last year and she’s a surprise addition tonight on the carpet.
Dern towers over media members as she delivers the most thoughtful responses over the top of the screaming photographers. Take a look at the red carpet chaos here.
For a laugh, here’s Chalamet being ushered past journalists at lightning speed.
Chalamet’s performance in this film is as good, if not better, than both his roles in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. He’s so loveable, there was part of me that had hoped Gerwig has switched up Alcott’s ending so that Jo and Laurie ended up together. (And yes, together, he and Ronan are the new Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone film pairing.)
To meet in person, Dern is poised, pensive and incredibly maternal – like Marmee. While print media are often a section of reporters who are skipped at such red carpet events, Dern has spotted the line-up of young female journalists and ensures everybody gets to speak to her irrespective of the fact the night is running hugely overtime.
There’s a beautiful scene in the film where Marmee is talking to Jo as her daughter tries to work out if she’s in love with Laurie or not. “Girls have to go out into the world and make their own minds up about things,” says Marmee in the dim-lit attic of the March house. With this in mind, I ask Dern if she remembers a time in her own life, where she left the safety of home and ventured out in the world for the first time with a dream in her pocket.
“I do,” she says, gently smiling with a twinkle in her eye. “That moment came when I made the choice to become an actor – and at a very young age. Not that I left home permanently but to go on location at 11 or 12 years old was scary but I felt like I had no choice because I had absolutely fallen in love with acting.”
Speaking of playing Marmee – and of that scene – Dern said: “Being a mother is complicated and messy and we’re learning too. We are imperfect. Hopefully we have wisdom but our greatest wisdom may just be sharing who we are, with our daughters in this case – and our sons. I think being honest is such a gorgeous trait in parenting so I feel so privileged to play Marmee.”
Like the novel, the film jumps back and forth between the sisters as young women figuring out the world and the sisters as adults figuring out if they have honoured their fearless youths. “Your path definitely worked out wonderfully for you, congratulations on another important role.”
“Thank you so much,” Dern responded. “I love what I do, I’m very lucky.”
Pugh – in Valentino – also stops by for a chat, she and I meeting eye to eye as we start talking about her scene with Streep. “I don’t know what it’s like to not earn my own money and I never will,” she says. “But I can imagine the frustration of being those girls and growing up in that household – with that creativity, positivity and intelligence – and then still battling all those challenges that they did outside that March household.
“They were the ones who began saying, ‘This is incorrect’ and that’s exactly why we love Jo,” she continues. “Because she went against the grain…”
“And earned her own money,” we both say in unison.
Little Women Is In Australian cinemas New Year’s Day.