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“You have so many great books,” Greta Gerwig cracked to an audience of British BAFTA members as she sat down for a Q&A on Wednesday evening at the Arclight Hollywood following one of the first screenings of her second feature film as a director, Little Women, for which she also wrote the screenplay. “We [Americans] have just two: Little Women and Moby Dick. And I wasn’t interested in making Moby Dick.”
Flanked by her film’s stars Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, the 36-year-old — who, in 2018, became only the fifth woman ever nominated for the best director Oscar, for 2017’s Lady Bird — continued, “As a girl who wanted to be a writer, Jo March was my North Star.”
Gerwig’s version of Little Women — like Louisa May Alcott‘s 1868 source novel and its 1933, 1949 and 1994 film adaptations — is utterly charming. Each of the four sisters at the center of the story — played by Ronan, Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen, all 20-somethings who look younger than they are — are ideally suited to their parts. The film’s cinematography — handled by Yorick Le Saux — is striking, particularly a scene on a beach with sand fluttering in the air. Its score — composed by two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat — is omnipresent and lovely. And its story, though 150 years old, feels as timely as ever in 2019, when women are demanding equal pay and insisting on love on their own terms, but still facing societal resistance. As Gerwig noted, “Taylor Swift doesn’t even own the rights to her own music.”
But is Gerwig’s version of Little Women — which was produced by Amy Pascal, and which Sony will release nationwide on Christmas — an “Oscar movie”?
There is some reason for skepticism. The aforementioned versions found limited love from the Academy. The ’33 version won best adapted screenplay and was nominated for best picture and director; the ’49 version won best art direction/set direction (color) and was nominated for best cinematography (color); and the ’94 version received noms for best actress (Winona Ryder), costume design and original score.
Moreover, Sony hasn’t had much Oscar success in recent years — and, this year, has to juggle Little Women with Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, which was a tremendously successful summer release, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
But there is also reason for optimism. Little Women is a film with humor, heart and — particularly notable in a year of such dark Oscar contenders — a happy ending. It also could appeal to a wide cross-section of Academy members, thanks to excellent costume design and production design on top of the aforementioned standout acting, writing, directing, cinematography and music work. Furthermore, Ronan, though just 25, has established herself with voters in a big way — her likely Oscar nom, for best actress, would be her fourth, on the heels of 2007’s Atonement, 2015’s Brooklyn and 2017’s Lady Bird, all of which were also nominated for best picture.
And then there’s the Gerwig factor. The self-effacing actress-turned-auteur is tremendously liked and respected by the cinephile community, which has cheered her since her days in mumblecore. And her collaborators can’t seem to say enough great things about her, which will only further boost her standing. Indeed, during Wednesday’s Q&A, Ronan, Chalamet (who also starred in Lady Bird) and Dern waxed rhapsodic about what a privilege it is to be working with a once-in-a-generation talent. And, in the ultimate endorsement, Streep — after noting that she cried through the last 10 minutes of the film because “we have never seen Little Women on screen told through the eyes of a woman” — said to Gerwig, “I worship at your feet.” (Note: The ’94 version was, in fact, written, produced and directed by women.)
Should Gerwig receive a second best director Oscar nomination, she would become the first woman ever to have done so — and, in a dramatic twist, she might well wind up sharing the category with her boyfriend Noah Baumbach, who is in serious contention for Marriage Story, a film inspired by his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, after which he and Gerwig got together.