Little Women (1994 film)
|Directed by||Gillian Armstrong|
|Screenplay by||Robin Swicord|
|Produced by||Denise Di Novi|
|Edited by||Nicholas Beauman|
|Music by||Thomas Newman|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|Box office||$50.1 million|
Little Women is a 1994 American coming-of-age historical drama film directed by Gillian Armstrong. The screenplay by Robin Swicord is based on Louisa May Alcott's 1868-69 two-volume novel of the same title, the fifth feature film adaptation of the classic story. After a limited release on December 25, 1994, the film was released nationwide four days later by Columbia Pictures. The film is dedicated to murder victim Polly Klaas and literary agent Judy Scott-Fox.
The film focuses on the March sisters: responsible Meg, tempestuous Jo, tender Beth, and romantic Amy, who are growing up in Concord, Massachusetts during and after the American Civil War. With their father away fighting in the war, the girls struggle with major and minor problems under the guidance of their strong-willed mother, affectionately called Marmee (pronounced "Mahmee" in 19th century New England). As a means of escaping some of their problems, the sisters revel in performing in romantic plays written by Jo in their attic theater.
Living next door to the family is wealthy Mr. Laurence, whose grandson Theodore, nicknamed "Laurie", moves in with him and becomes a close friend of the March family, particularly Jo. Mr. Laurence becomes a mentor for Beth, whose exquisite piano-playing reminds him of his deceased young daughter, and Meg falls in love with Laurie's tutor John Brooke.
When Mr. March is wounded in the war, Jo sells her hair so that Marmee can purchase a train ticket to travel to Mr. March and nurse him back to health. While Marmee is away, Beth continues Marmee's visits to a struggling immigrant family in order to provide them food and firewood. During this time she contracts scarlet fever from the family's infant. Awaiting Marmee's return, Meg and Jo, who both previously survived scarlet fever, send Amy away to live in safety with their Aunt March. Fearing that she too may contract the illness, Amy laments to Laurie that she may die without ever being kissed. Laurie promises Amy to kiss her before she dies should she become ill. Prior to Beth's illness, Jo had been Aunt March's companion for several years, and while she was unhappy with her position she tolerated it in the hope her aunt one day would take her to Europe. When Beth's condition worsens, Marmee is summoned home and nurses her to recovery just in time for Christmas, but the illness has severely weakened her. Mr. Laurence gives his daughter's piano to Beth, Meg accepts John Brooke's proposal and Mr. March surprises his family by returning home from the war.
Four years pass; Meg (now 20) and John marry, and Beth's health is deteriorating steadily. Laurie graduates from college, proposes to Jo (now 19) and asks her to go to London with him, but realizing she thinks of him more as an older brother than a lover, she refuses his offer. Jo later deals with the added disappointment that Aunt March has decided to take the now 17-year-old Amy with her to Europe instead of Jo, as Amy now works as aunt's companion and Aunt March wishes for Amy to further her training as an artist in Europe. Crushed, Jo departs for New York City to pursue her dream of writing and experiencing life. There she meets Friedrich Bhaer, a German professor who challenges and stimulates her intellectually, introduces her to opera and philosophy, and encourages her to write better stories than the lurid Victorian melodramas she has penned so far.
In Europe, Amy is reunited with Laurie. She is disappointed to find he has become dissolute and irresponsible, and scolds him for pursuing her merely to become part of the March family. In return, he bitterly rebukes her for courting one of his wealthy college friends in order to marry into money. He leaves Amy a letter asking her to wait for him while he works in London for his grandfather and makes himself worthy of her.
Jo is summoned home to see eighteen-year-old Beth, who finally dies of the lingering effects of scarlet fever (presumably rheumatic heart disease) that have plagued her for the past four years. A saddened Jo retreats to the comfort of the attic and begins to write her life story. Upon its completion, she sends it to Professor Bhaer. Meanwhile, Meg gives birth to fraternal twins Demi and Daisy.
A letter from Amy informs the family that Aunt March is too ill to travel, so Amy must remain in Europe with her. In London, Laurie receives a letter from Jo in which she informs him of Beth's death and mentions Amy is in Vevey, unable to come home. Laurie immediately travels to be at Amy's side. They finally return to the March home as husband and wife, much to Jo's surprise and eventual delight.
Aunt March dies and she leaves Jo her house, which she decides to convert into a school. Professor Bhaer arrives with the printed galley proofs of her manuscript, but when he mistakenly believes Jo has married Laurie, he departs to catch a train to the West, where he is to become a teacher. Jo runs after him and explains the misunderstanding. When she begs him not to leave, he proposes marriage and she happily accepts.
- Winona Ryder as Josephine "Jo" March, an ambitious young woman, who longs to become a successful author.
- Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer, an older professor who falls in love with Jo while he works as a tutor in New York and eventually marries her.
- Trini Alvarado as Margaret "Meg" March, the oldest March sister. She marries Laurie's tutor, John Brooke, and gives birth to fraternal twins: a boy, John (nicknamed "Demijohn" by Jo, which is shortened to "Demi"); and a girl, Margaret, called "Daisy" at home "so as to not have two Megs".
- Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis as Amy March, the youngest March child and quick-witted daughter. Instead of the brown hair and brown or green eyes of her three older sisters, she has golden curls and blue eyes. She later marries Laurie and becomes a successful painter. Amy was the only character played by two different actresses - Dunst portrayed her at twelve years old in the first half of the movie, Mathis as a young woman in the second half of the movie.
- Claire Danes as Elizabeth "Beth" March, the third March daughter and the pianist of the family. She is shy, good, sweet, kindly, and loyal. At the young age of fourteen, she contracted scarlet fever, which weakened her heart and resulted in her death four years later at the age of eighteen.
- Christian Bale as Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, the young neighbor who becomes Jo's best friend in their youth. Later, he tries, but fails, to convince her to marry him. He eventually falls in love with and marries Amy.
- Eric Stoltz as John Brooke, Laurie's tutor and Meg's eventual husband.
- John Neville as Mr. James Laurence, Laurie's grandfather and a kind neighbor of the Marches.
- Mary Wickes as Aunt Josephine March, the only March family member who still has a lot of money. Upon her death, her estate is left to adult Jo, who transforms it into a school for boys.
- Susan Sarandon as Abigail "Marmee" March, the mother of the March daughters and the loving wife of Mr. March.
- Matthew Walker as Robert March, the father of the four March daughters, Marmee's loving husband, and long-time devoted spouse.
- Florence Paterson as Hannah Mullet, the loyal housekeeper of the March family since Meg was born. The girls think of her more as a good friend than a servant.
- Janne Mortil as Sally Moffat, Meg's one and only good friend, who is quite rich and prosperous.
- Donal Logue as Jacob Mayer
It took Little Women 12 years to find a studio. According to writer Robin Swicord and producer Denise Di Novi "people just weren't interested in a movie with a lot of women...". One executive suggested a modern version. "...the Marches are in the 90s and not happy about not having a car for Christmas". In the industry films like Little Women were referred to as "needle in the eye" pictures. They were assumed to have no appeal to male audiences, and deemed not worth the risk of production. Eventually, Columbia agreed to consider the project under the condition that Winona Ryder was to play Jo.
Originally, Gillian Armstrong wasn't on board with directing Little Women. She rejected the offer several times due to the similarities between Little Women and her previous film, My Brilliant Career. However, with persuasion from the Denise DiNovi and Amy Pascal (producers), Armstrong came to realize that the two films were different after all. With the help of screenwriter, Robin Swicord, they aimed to portray more mature themes than the previous adaptations— such as, family, growing up, and progressive feminism. When co-writing, Armstrong chose not to look back at the previous films for inspiration but instead decided to stay true to the novel.
Along with Winona Ryder, already signed on to play Jo, offers for the roles of Marmee and Laurie were sent out to Susan Sarandon and Christian Bale. Sarandon almost turned down the role on the basis that "... it was towards the end of the school year, and I had a pretty strict policy about not leaving my young kids". The part of Amy was the first most difficult casting decision to be made. This adaptation was the first and only to have two different actresses play Amy over the course of the film. According to producer Denise Di Novi, there was something "weird" about having one actress playing first a child and then an adult: "It just didn't work."
Among those to read for the role of Amy were the then unknown Natalie Portman, and Thora Birch who had already filmed Hocus Pocus and Patriot Games. In the end, Kirsten Dunst was chosen - Armstrong mentioned in a 2019 interview that "Kirsten Dunst really blew [other young Amy candidates] out of the water". The decision for the role of the older Amy was close between Reese Witherspoon and Samantha Mathis. Armstrong's first pick if the production had decided on casting one actress to play Amy was Witherspoon, "... the very best person we auditioned was Witherspoon. She was also short...". However, casting director Carrie Frazier finally decided to settle on Mathis.
Lastly, was the role of Professor Bhaer. The initial candidate to play Bhaer, at least for Di Novi, was Hugh Grant. "We all had a huge crush on Hugh". However, Frazier was not on board the idea, claiming that the option was a bit "off the rails". Grant was too young and confident to play the Bhaer of the book that Frazier, Di Novi, and Armstrong wanted. John Turturro also lobbied persistently for the role, but Frazier wanted a deeper and more poetic Bhaer, and decided on Gabriel Byrne.
The 1994 adaptation of Little Women was filmed primarily in parts of Canada, such as Vancouver Island and Vancouver, both in the province of British Columbia. However, certain scenes were shot in the United States, throughout Massachusetts. Gillian Armstrong was adamant about creating a look that remained faithful to Little Women's time period. The overall film aesthetic for the 1994 Little Women, was heavily influenced by photographs, paintings, and drawings from the era. Armstrong and cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson sought inspiration from artwork that was created during the Civil War Era, when Little Women was written. In collaboration with the rest of the crew including art director Jan Roelfs, they used these works of art as guidelines for the sets, costumes, colour coordination, and even camera lighting.
According to the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 92% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 39 reviews, with an average rating of 7.3/10. The site's critics consensus reads, "Thanks to a powerhouse lineup of talented actresses, Gillian Armstrong's take on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women proves that a timeless story can succeed no matter how many times it's told." At Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 87 out of 100 based on 23 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film 31⁄2 stars, calling it "a surprisingly sharp and intelligent telling of Louisa May Alcott's famous story, and not the soft-edged children's movie it might appear." He added, "[It] grew on me. At first, I was grumpy, thinking it was going to be too sweet and devout. Gradually, I saw that Gillian Armstrong [...] was taking it seriously. And then I began to appreciate the ensemble acting, with the five actresses creating the warmth and familiarity of a real family."
Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle called the film "meticulously crafted and warmly acted" and observed it "is one of the rare Hollywood studio films that invites your attention, slowly and elegantly, rather than propelling your interest with effects and easy manipulation."
The film opened on 1,503 screens in the US and Canada on December 21, 1994. It grossed $5.3 million and ranked #6 at the box office on its opening weekend and eventually earned $50.1 million. Against its budget of $18 million, the film was a success.
Awards and nominations
|20/20 Awards||Best Costume Design||Colleen Atwood||Nominated|
|Academy Awards||Best Actress||Winona Ryder||Nominated|
|Best Costume Design||Colleen Atwood||Nominated|
|Best Original Score||Thomas Newman||Nominated|
|Artios Awards||Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film Casting – Drama||Carrie Frazier and Shani Ginsberg||Nominated|
|Awards Circuit Community Awards||Best Actress in a Leading Role||Winona Ryder||Nominated|
|BMI Film & TV Awards||Film Music Award||Thomas Newman||Won|
|Boston Society of Film Critics Awards||Best Supporting Actress||Kirsten Dunst (also for Interview with the Vampire)||Won|
|British Academy Film Awards||Best Costume Design||Colleen Atwood||Nominated|
|Chicago Film Critics Association Awards||Best Actress||Winona Ryder||Nominated|
|Best Supporting Actress||Claire Danes||Nominated|
|Most Promising Actress||Nominated|
|Chlotrudis Awards||Best Movie||Nominated|
|Best Actress||Winona Ryder||Nominated|
|Best Supporting Actress||Kirsten Dunst||Nominated|
|Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards||Best Picture||Nominated|
|Faro Island Film Festival||Best Film||Gillian Armstrong||Nominated|
|Best Actress||Winona Ryder||Won|
|Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards||Best Actress||Won|
|Movieguide Awards||Best Movie for Families||Won|
|Satellite Awards||Best Classic DVD||Nominated|
|USC Scripter Awards||Robin Swicord (screenwriter); Louisa May Alcott (author)||Nominated|
|Writers Guild of America Awards||Best Screenplay – Based on Material Previously Produced or Published||Robin Swicord||Nominated|
|Young Artist Awards||Best Family Motion Picture – Drama||Nominated|
|Best Performance by a Youth Actress Co-Starring in a Motion Picture||Claire Danes||Nominated|
|Kirsten Dunst (also for Interview with the Vampire)||Won|
- 2nd – Mack Bates, The Milwaukee Journal
- 3rd – Michael MacCambridge, Austin American-Statesman
- 5th – Sean P. Means, The Salt Lake Tribune
- 5th – Dan Craft, The Pantagraph
- 6th – Yardena Arar, Los Angeles Daily News
- 8th – Scott Schuldt, The Oklahoman
- 9th – Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
- 10th – Gene Siskel, The Chicago Tribune
- Top 9 (not ranked) – Dan Webster, The Spokesman-Review
- Top 10 (listed alphabetically, not ranked) – Mike Clark, USA Today
- Top 10 (listed alphabetically, not ranked) – Matt Zoller Seitz, Dallas Observer
- Top 10 (listed alphabetically, not ranked) – Bob Ross, The Tampa Tribune
- Top 10 runner-ups (not ranked) – Janet Maslin, The New York Times
- Honorable mention – William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
- Honorable mention – David Elliott, The San Diego Union-Tribune
- Honorable mention – Michael Mills, The Palm Beach Post
The film had its initial North America video release on VHS on June 20, 1995, followed by its initial digital release on DVD on April 25, 2000. The Blu-ray format was released three times. While the manufacture-on-demand version from Sony was released twice on Dec 13, 2016 and March 24, 2020 where the former was part of the Sony Choice Collection, Mill Creek Entertainment released a double feature Blu-ray on October 29, 2019 that contained Little Women and Kirsten Dunst's fellow film Marie Antoinette.
- Second weekend in box office performance § Second-weekend increase
- Little Women (1918 film)
- Little Women (1933 film)
- Little Women (1949 film)
- Little Women (2019 film)
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