Last Christmas, Larry Schwartz and his daughters Lana and Stacy spent their holiday visiting the girls’ mother, Barbara, in the hospice wing of Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. Barbara was at the end of a nearly two-year battle with melanoma. Days later, on New Year’s Eve 2018, she died.
So this year, Larry, 78, Lana, 30, and their family friend Nora spent their Christmas at Williamsburg Cinemas in Brooklyn watching the new adaptation of Little Women. Stacy was out of town with her husband, but both sisters grew up reading Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel and watching the 1994 film. Lana was eagerly anticipating director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation.
“It would have felt wrong to have seen something else that day,” Lana tells MEL. “It’s a movie I wish I could have shared with my mom.” Instead, she shared it with her father, and it turned out to be a cathartic experience. “We were both crying a lot. I was just surprised how much it hit home for him.”
Little Women chronicles the coming-of-age of four sisters in Massachusetts during the end of the Civil War. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is the acerbic, restless writer. Meg (Emma Watson) is the romantic older sister, while Amy (Florence Pugh) is a feisty middle child. The youngest is Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the tender heart of the family.
The film has a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and widespread acclaim among audiences. In his MEL review, my colleague Tim Grierson says, “The film celebrates the things that make life worth living.” However, no matter how much praise, nostalgia or Laura Dern the film has going for it, Little Women has a male problem. Rather, men have an issue with Little Women. Evidently, they’re not seeing the film.
Producer Amy Pascal chastised male Oscar voters for seemingly skipping preview screenings. “I don’t think that [men] came to the screenings in droves, let me put it that way,” Pascal told Vanity Fair. “And I’m not sure when they got their [screener] DVDs that they watched them.”
Just a day earlier, playwright and actor Tracy Letts wrote an op-ed for GQ calling on men to support the film — like his character, the publisher Mr. Dashwood, does in the film by offering Jo March her first book deal. “Little boys like shootouts and car chases, but real men like Little Women,” he wrote.
Certainly, though, there are a few points of criticism that feel just. Little Women is another adaptation of the 150-year-old tale about middle-class white women. There are virtually zero characters of color, and the film’s publicists reportedly limited screening access to Latinx critics.
It’s also lacking bells and whistles. For a family looking to appease Grandma and a 7-year-old, Little Women might be too slow a burn. To some, Little Women may seem like a movie you see with Mom while Dad stays home to watch football. Gerwig faced similar “female film” labeling in 2017 with Lady Bird, also starring Saoirse Ronan.
But if you search for “Little Women men” on Reddit or scroll through the phrase “Little Women” ‘dad” on Twitter, you’ll find countless anecdotes of men refusing to see the film. If men, particularly fathers, aren’t seeing Little Women, they’re missing out on an opportunity to show they value the women in their lives. They’re also missing out on some stellar filmmaking.
“We saw Star Wars a few days ago, so this was a nice change of pace,” Raeyan Marshall, 22, tells MEL. She went with her entire family to see Little Women near their home in Southeastern Kentucky over the weekend. Marshall had to give her dad and uncle a feline ultimatum. “They saw that I wasn’t backing down. I told them they could choose between Little Women and Cats — easy choice,” she says.
Once seated for Little Women, Marshall worried they’d walk out after the first act. And then she saw Uncle John crying. His tears flowed throughout the film.
The positive response from Marshall’s male role models was more satisfying than Jo March’s many monologues. “It made me feel like they care more about my interests and the things I go through,” Marshall says. “[I felt] more relevant and heard — as silly as that may sound.”
After seven adaptations of Little Women, it’s become a rare intergenerational American tale. Most notable are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 film featuring Elizabeth Taylor, and 1994’s Winona Ryder entry. There’s also a 2017 PBS miniseries starring Maya Hawke, and countless stage plays.
Then there’s the novel. Sara Fowler, 27, grew up reading her mom’s copy of the book before it fell apart. She went to see the film the day after Christmas with her mother, Heidi, and father, Keith, at an Erie, Pennsylvania, movie theater. She didn’t have to beg her dad to go. It was his birthday trip, and he’s loved Little Women since the 1949 film.
“It was an inspiration to me growing up in the ’50s on what people can accomplish and aspire to achieve regardless of the circumstances,” Keith says. “This is a true ideal American story” — one that’s “not constrained by gender, no matter the title.”
Sara found her father’s appreciation of the film gratifying. “Seeing a film that’s so intensely focused on female ambition and accomplishment with my dad was also incredibly refreshing. I turn to him for that kind of advice a lot,” she says.
If fathers are skipping out on the film, it’s not killing the box office. The film opened to a strong five-day weekend gross of $29 million, a hit considering it went up against monstrous franchise installments Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Jumanji: The Next Level.
Regardless of interest, two hours spent watching Little Women might mean more to their daughters than many fathers realize. After all, the film is about a family with an absent dad.
“We all felt pretty raw,” Lana says. Back at Williamsburg Cinemas in Brooklyn, she’s consoling her father Larry through some scenes I’d rather not spoil. For Larry, who never saw or read Little Women before, watching Jo and Meg take care of their ill sister made him recall his years watching over Barbara. Now, after 40 years of marriage, Larry is rapidly approaching the first anniversary of a year by himself.
Shortly after the film, Larry texted his daughter. “Hi Lana,” he wrote. “It was great seeing everyone. This is important in my life. Viewing the Little Women movie that you recommended was so powerful. It really grabbed me by the throat. It was so articulate in telling the story about life and the fleeting moments of time concerning the trivial and what is most important in life’s changing moments in our daily lives.”
Still, for a movie about finding the beauty in life’s simplest moments, the biggest takeaway for many fathers may simply be dad-adored actor Bob Odenkirk — best known as Breaking Bad‘s sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman — popping up as the father of the March girls.
Larry giddily couldn’t help but see a little bit of himself in the protective, loving Father March. “The father who plays Better Call Saul. I can’t pronounce his name. I wouldn’t even try, but he was a good role model.”
Whether or not he knew it, Larry’s presence in that theater was real-life role-model behavior. “It was emotional for me that it was emotional for him,” Lana says. “It was nice to see he gave the story the same attention and care he would give any other movie.”