Little Women (2019, directed by Greta Gerwig. U.S.A., in English, Color, 135 minutes)
Bombshell (2019, directed by Jay Roach. U.S.A., in English, Color, 108 minutes)
The happy playfulness of a life lived fills the screen in Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic book, "Little Women". The iconic March sisters, led by the second eldest Jo (portrayed this go-around by Saoirse Ronan), beam with whimsy and joy like schoolgirls free of the world and its problems as they explore it with tenacity and a love for each other. Before they get too ahead of themselves they should be in need of a man to have a sense of security until they die - standard operating procedure for 19th century romances. Being a spinster was never a good look, even if you were so charming as Meg, Jo, Amy or Beth.
The sisters are no dummies; they know that it takes money to survive. What is a product of their own creativity doesn't sell well, and whatever they do make will eventually be siphoned by a future husband: a woman is left with nothing but a relationship, the only thing of societal importance worth more for a woman than their own self-worth. How they all wish to create lives for themselves as women in post-Civil War New England did not have the same push to achieve as women are granted now. Jo writes, Amy paints, Meg wants to act, and Beth wants to play piano for a grand theater: all of these possibilities for a lucrative career diminished for the sake of social norms. In pursuit of a rich husband, according to the grumpy old Aunt March (Meryl Streep), is the smartest thing that any of the sisters can do. The drive to do something else is barely admired.
Love meant something to all of the sisters except Jo who felt bound by the societal restrictions it placed on a woman to be less than a liberated person. Gerwig beautifully captures each flirty glance and actions among the girls with a swath of potential suitors, including their rich neighbor Laurie, his tutor John and their friend Fred. There was looseness to the spaces Gerwig makes and the way she directs the actors to appear like they're broken out of the stuffiness of the time. They all look like free-wheeling kids, almost literally, who ran into the nearest thrift store or high school theater costume closet and pulled out the most appropriate articles to put on "Little Women", and I loved every minute of it. The actors run through the fielded landscapes like a bunch of kids playing tag on a summer night, trying to catch that special attention they all crave from each other, but are too shy, or even proud, to admit. The emotions do catch up with them all as they start to settle into more grown-up attitudes about their own abilities, and the people who try to help them along the way.
What I loved so much in watching "Little Women" - the first time I've ever seen a film adaptation - is the sheer joy I felt from the actors who wanted to tell me their characters' stories with great admiration. I got the same feeling watching 2005's "Pride & Prejudice" where the Bennett sisters came alive as funny and unique women, also in need of husbands. Both films have been opened up to feel the lush happiness of being young (and pondering love), and taking the bad times when they come with such maturity. In both cases I felt the most attached to the story because it was an experience relieved of an overbearing, rigid flare that stunts period-piece romances. "Little Women" and "Pride & Prejudice" are prime examples of wrapping 19th century romance stories into 21st century creativity. The emotional pull is not lost because its adaptability has changed into something freer that benefits all of the characters to not feel tightened to the source material. Gerwig takes chances that Alcott, or even Jo March, would take if they knew it would make a better story.
Most important about Gerwig's "Little Women" is how timely it is. Throughout the film are instances of women having to be sized up by men to gauge their standing. It's unfortunate that centuries after the story is set how few things have changed. Jo's stories are not "good" (too "out there") to be printed or appreciated in their final form and Amy's impressionist take of a landscape lacks her confidence to realize it's better than a man's blotchy rendering of the same scene. Regardless, they still power on. They faced their success and failures together in a way that made me feel included in their lives. And boy is it a far cry from these happier times when the March sisters felt a yearning to achieve than to marry. The sisters wanted to matter on their own merits, to be accomplished. Women couldn't even vote when the story was written and they wanted to breakout from restrictions (There is a beautiful sequence of Alcott watching her book “Little Women” bound that solidifies what we watched the March sisters strive for.). What would happen when women become bosses? Became a nationally-known personality? Was the publisher in "Little Women" trying to protect the writer Jo March from the vitriol of public opinion? For this, you may understand why Jo was disappointed to be a girl.
Where she may have regretted saying that line is if she saw 150 years later what happened to women who became the subject of sexual harassment, rape, hostile work environments, and other toxic stories about the inclusion of women into everyday work spaces. Alcott was able to tell the stories of she and her sisters in a fictionalized form that became "Little Women", but imagine if your personal story became a national story shrouded in controversy?
Thus is the story of "Bombshell", a dramatic retelling of sexual harassment at the Fox News Corporate offices by leading TV personalities Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, along with infusions of other allegations made against the top executives and at least one other on-air personality. The internal struggle to verify Kelly and Carlson's claims of harassment against Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes became its own hot news some four years ago. "Little Women" proved that women can be of worth in whatever they want to be in the world, "Bombshell" shows how even if they become accomplished they may still not be respected by their peers or society.
In addition to Fox headliners Kelly (Charlize Theron) and Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is a young producer on another Fox program, portrayed by Margot Robbie (in a fictional role not based on any one person's harassment claims), who form a bond in their unhappiness to be heard about the torment they've experienced in the news room, going back years and years. There are some unsettling moments in "Bombshell" but it didn’t go beyond the "why" this movie was made. This is the third major interpretation of the Ailes accusations after a theatrically released documentary from late 2018, a Showtime miniseries in the spring and now this theatrically released film. I didn't learn anything new or pertinent that could have been known for years in reading thorough print stories when all of this was unraveling.
So then why was "Little Women" adapted for the umpteenth time and I was OK with it? The classics never get old, and they are staples of literature that can always be adapted and refreshed for different cultures and times. "Bombshell" is stuck in a certain time with certain people that cannot be worked outside of those definitive parameters. Even worse is that a film like "Bombshell" pleads to make us feel bad for the women who weren't working together for a goal. The advertising material alone implies that the three women standing in an elevator are plotting a weaponless "John McLane" on their tormentors. But they don't really work together, they take a divide and conquer approach. The women of "Bombshell" are united in a common goal, not the collective result in achieving it. I think the film suffers the same fate in wanting to expose many allegations against one person and not what the collective responsibility is in doing so. In this day and age, an accusation is enough.
To add insult to injury, I even found myself agreeing with talk show host Wendy Williams in wondering why this was made for theaters and not left on TV. Director Jay Roach has made for HBO two other politically charged films ("Recount" and "Game Change") that "Bombshell" could have been in comfortable company with. The trouble alone with star/producer Charlize Theron to secure financing for the film may have made HBO a more promising platform. It may have been better to stay on premium cable, or even a streaming platform, to keep this tired exercise in a medium where its resounding message is bigger than the story told. Aside from Theron's transformation to play Kelly, there isn't much new or intriguing to warrant seeing this (at the theater).
"Little Women" is released nationally on Dec. 25. "Bombshell" enters wide release on Dec. 20.
Little Women: A