FEATURE REEL WOMEN
Sister my sister
Hollywood’s third shot at ﬁlming Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been lent extra credibilty by the involvement of a strong feamle production team. Sarah Gristwood met the director, Gillian Armstrong, and actresses Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder.
inona Ryder does not look like anyone’s idea of film’s Ms Fixit. Pale. porcelain and miniature right down to her fingertips. those hands weren’t built to hold a briefcase. But Ryder it was who got the phenomenally successful Little Women off the ground with no more than a ‘yes‘. and secured Gillian Armstrong as director too. Appropriately enough — it’s always convenient when life imitates art — Ryder plays lo. the mover and shaker of the March family in Louisa May Alcott’s novel.
By the same token. this story of five women was brought to the screen by a female team. from the executive at Columbia Pictures. through writer Robin Swicord and producer Denise Di Novi. That the director of this all- American classic should also be an Australian .
well. that just says something about the position of women in the US film industry.
No one involved wants Little Women dismissed as a ‘women’s film‘. but no one likes the ‘fcminist’ label either. As Susan Sarandon points out. ‘When men make a film. it‘s not called a “men’s film“ ‘
‘Unfortunately. there are negative connotations to both words.‘ says Armstrong. ‘The feminism word means heavy and angry. The women’s word means soppy and sweet. too sugary. I’m a strong feminist. but I know that‘s not the way to get people in at the box office. and it’s a story about family. not a “women’s movie”. Some parts have a feminist message. bttt that’s not the main thrust. lt‘s Louisa May Alcott’s love poem to her sisters and her family — a very primitive thing. the people who are part ofyour life. your blood — and that's what people. male as well as female. are connecting with.‘
All the satne. to make it a film for the 90s.
elements of feminism and a good many other
things have been drawn out of the book more strongly. The result — speak the term quietly — is. well. PC. You‘ve got desegregation.
homeopathy. corporal punishment, the evils of
corsetry and the very visible fact that Marmee (Sarandon) operates as a single mother. The book was in many ways autobiographical. and Swicord felt at liberty to borrow from the history of Aleott‘s own 'l‘ranscendentalist family.
‘I read the book when I was about twelve, and I remember being appalled that there were things you couldn’t do just because , you were a woman . . . It was my introduction to sexism.’ WINONA RYDER
Alcott‘s mother was the first paid social worker in Massachusetts. her own family having a background in anti-slavery. Her father. Bronson. was one of the Emersonfl‘horeau circle. a philosopher and educationalist whose unsuccessful career and personal oddity were glossed over in his daughter‘s best known fiction. lle linally won fame lecturing as ‘the father of Little Women‘. but he‘d helped make much of Louisa‘s life a burden. Today. hackles rise on hearing that the minister at their joint funeral suggested Bronson couldn‘t do without his dependable daughter even in heaven. when she died just two days after him.
Alcott herself spoke dismissively of the Little Women stories and the fame they brought her. She "never liked girls or knew many except my sisters'. A ‘litcrary nursemaid‘ was not what she had aspired to be. The 27(l-odd works in every
possible genre which make up the whole of her literary output show a woman and a writer in conflict —- conflict about her longing for independence versus her family duty. her talent. her gender. her sexuality.
A strange role model? On the contrary. The team making the film. seen by Robin Swicord as a story of female artists coming of age. suggests the book works today by virtue of its honesty, its very uncertainty. ‘She was writing with insight and humour and in that she was ahead of her time. because girls then were usually written in a very saccharine way. She wrote about sisters growing up to become women who were jealous. fighting. confused and that’s why it has stood the test of time.‘ says Gillian Armstrong.
Ryder adds: ‘I read the book when l was about twelve. and I remember being really confused by the idea that it was a problem for Jo to be a writer. I remember being appalled that there were things you couldn’t do just because you were a woman when my parents explained it to me. It was my introduction to sexism.’ It was Ryder who brought Gilliam Armstrong onto the project against studio complaints that the director was too dark. too uncommercial. ‘She’s never made a movie that I didn‘t really love.’ Ryder says. ‘When I was growing up. My Brilliant Career was very important to me.‘
But ask if Little Women had to be made by a woman director. and Susan Saradon’s answer is. not necessarily. ‘T/telma and Louise was made by a man who didn’t relate to women at all. Directors are like aliens. every one is different and it’s not determined by gender.’ The ‘woman director‘ label is also one of which Armstrong is wary: ‘I consider myself a film director and an artist. I believe in women. I wouldn‘t do a film that was sexist. but I‘ve always thought the best way to carry a message was with a bit of entertainment.‘ From successful American directors like Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) and Penelope Spheeris (ll/avne’s World) — many of whom make boy toy stories in the belief that the idea of a feminine aesthetic is diverse and
and gives them a distinctively stylish twist. If mainstream values are to be subverted from within the system. she‘s your woman. Strange Days. with the hot Ralph Fiennes. is on Univeral‘s schedule for 95/96.
I Barbra Streisand Singer. actress and worldwide superstar. Streisand spent ten years setting up her directorial debut. Yent/ ( 1983). As
producer and director of The Prince Of
Tides some eight years later. she proved that. when behind the camera. she's happy to embrace the Tinseltown love of schmaltz and gloss.
I Penelope Spheeris She may hit 50 this year. but Spheeris has tnade a career out of films filmed with punks. metalheads and geeks. Documentaries and low budget features brought her to the fore in the 80s. but she failed to capitalise on the incredible success of L 1992‘s Wayne's World. Next up is
Little Ix’ast'als. a kids movie out for Easter. Talk about regression.
I Antonia Bifd Scotland can make a strong claim for having a ltand in the rise of director Bird from TV dramas to Hollywood. Winner of top awards at successive [Edinburgh Film Festivals for Safe and the newly released l’riest. she then headed across the Atlantic for Mad Love. Drew Barrymore. Chris O‘Donnell and the comfort of a studio budget. Can her integrity and strong sense of social injustice fit the system'.’ I Beeban Kidron Like the above- mentioned Antonia Bird. Kidron went from British television (Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit) to directing Shirley Maclaine. Jessica Tandy and Marcello Mastroanni in 20th Century Fox‘s Used 1’ 'ople. Less sentimental than many Hollywood filtns about oldies. it still tiptocd along a predictable path. Kidron came home
Barbra Streisand. director of Yentl
for (Ireat Moments In Aviation llistorv. but could score a post- l’riseilla hit with US drag queen road tnovic clone. 'Ioo Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything. Julie Newmar. Watch that title change.
I Geena Davis After the double whammy of ’l'ltelma and Louise and A League ()f'l'lteir ()n'n. Davis should have been well placed to grab Hollywood by the horns. Then catne the disappointments of Accidental Hero and Angie. and she folded her four-year-old company. Genial
Now it all rests on this summer's $70 million ('uttltroat Island. directed by husband Renny Harlin with whom she‘s formed a partnership called The Forge.
I Penny Marshall A former actress. no other woman has slipped as comfortably into the mainstream as
Pictures. without striking a single deal.
10 The List 24 Mar-6 Apr I995