Hollywood Flashback: Winona Ryder Got an Oscar Nom for 'Little Women' in 1994

Little Women_1994_Photofest still - H 2019
Joseph Lederer/Columbia Pictures/Photofest

The actress, then 23, portrayed tomboy Jo March as "ungainly, passionate, complicated, talented and clever," says the film's director, Gillian Armstrong.

For a novel written in 1868, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women has had an exceptionally good run at the Oscars. George Cukor's 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn was nominated for best picture and director and won for adapted screenplay.

Mervyn LeRoy's 1949 adaptation starring June Allyson won for best art director/set decoration and was nominated for color cinematography. And Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version received nominations for costume design and original score and brought Winona Ryder, then 23, a best actress nom for playing Jo March, the young woman who yearns to break away from family constraints and become a successful writer.

Armstrong says she'd read the novel as a child and was drawn to the material because of Alcott's "insight into the psyche of young women coming ofage and for the first time realizing the limitations and narrowness of what the world and life defines as women's roles." The Australian director says she felt Hepburn's portrayal of Jo in the Cukor film was "very, very tomboyish" and didn't want her version to have the "portrayal of bright rebellious women as out and out tomboys. So our Jo was ungainly, passionate, complicated, talented and clever." 

The Hollywood Reporter's review said Ryder "brings a strong but feminine wistfulness" to the role and described the movie overall as "a beautiful, gentle but spirited holiday treat with an appealing cast."

The cast was more than just appealing — it included some of the best young actors of that generation. Besides Ryder, there was Claire Danes, Gabriel Byrne, Kirsten Dunst and Christian Bale.

The Civil War period drama was made on a budget of $18 million ($31 million in today's dollars) and grossed $95 million ($165 million currently). After Women's Christmastime opening, THR published a Cinemascore chart that boded well for the Columbia Pictures release that had been shepherded by Amy Pascal, then a junior executive who went on to run the studio from 2006 to 2015.

The film got an A rating from all age groups, with the lowest rating coming from males — who still gave it an A-minus.

The latest incarnation of Little Women, produced by Pascal, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan as Jo, opens on Christmas Day. 

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.