Mark Twain once famously advised aspiring writers, "Don't say the fat lady sang. Drag her onstage and make her sing." Over the years, that quote has been simplified for creative writing students to just this: Show, don't tell.
Writer Harriet Reisen and director Nancy Porter do both in a new film biography of Louisa May Alcott that's been making the festival rounds. "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" is based on a forthcoming book by Reisen, a former fellow in screenwriting at the American Film Institute. Without a doubt, this film is the most effectively dramatic biography of a public figure that I've seen. Viewers aren't just told about the life of this famous American writer; they relive it, through a talented cast that acts out segments and gives "interviews" to the camera.
The general public will get a chance to see "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" on December 28, 2009, when it airs on PBS as part of the American Masters series. The awards it's been winning confirm the film's wide appeal: Grand Award at the Providence Film Festival, Audience Choice at the Cape Code Filmmaker Takeover, Best Feature Doc at the L.A. Reel Women Festival, and Best Family Feature at the Garden State Film Festival.
As much as I've enjoyed the American Masters series and its biographies of actors, artists, writers, and musicians, the talking heads and archival material can feel like a straitjacket for filmmakers . . . and audiences. Even the Ken Burns effect--slowly panning or zooming in or out of a photograph--can get old during the course of a feature-length film. Most recreations have failed because they're sparingly done, poorly cast and directed, or so clumsy that they just seem cheesy. But "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" gives us liberal, well-conceived dramatizations throughout, making them as dominant as those talking heads that are also featured. What's more, there's none of the usual take-yourself-too-seriously austere narration that so often accompanies literary biographies. Louisa May Alcott and her family are brought to life with dignity, but also humor. All of the dialogue that's used comes from journals and letters, and that lends an authenticity and unabashed forthrightness that's uncommon in films like this.
"I don't enjoy writing moral pap for the young," an adult Louisa May Alcott says directly into the camera, as if talking to an interviewer (or interloper). "I do it because it pays well."
Reisen gives us an intelligent script that doesn't skimp on humor. Sometimes, it's the material itself; other times, it's the way that the screenwriter arranges it. When, for example, an older Alcott recalls her third birthday party at which she was coached to give the sweet treats to her guests, since there weren't enough to go around, this exchange follows, with each character "interviewed" separately presented in quick juxtaposition:
Louisa May Alcott: "My first lesson in the sweetness of self-denial."
Bronson Alcott, her father: "The whole celebration gave much pleasure."
Louisa May Alcott: "Birthdays are always dismal times to me."
Bronson Alcott (Daniel Gerroll) was a thinker but not much of a businessman. At one point, the family lived in a basement apartment on the fringes of the worst slum in Boston. Louisa May felt an obligation to help lift her family out of poverty--especially her hard-working and long-suffering mother, Abigail (Dossy Peabody)--since her father apparently couldn't do it and often depended on the kindness of strangers. When we're told that Louisa May begins to sell her writing to Godey's Ladies Book, Graham's Magazine, and The Gazette, Louisa May comes on-camera again, positively dripping with the driest humor: "I think that, though an Alcott, I can support myself."
At first it's a little jarring to have running commentary and interviews with long-dead family members and early biographer Ednah Cheney interspersed among the usual talking-head interviews with Alcott scholars and museum heads, but the casting is so perfect and the acting so wonderful that you quickly accept the premise. Other than Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain, I can't think of another literary figure that's brought so realistically to life. The adult Louisa May Alcott is played by Elizabeth Marvel, who goes through a full range of emotions throughout the course of this film, from wry humor to heartfelt tears. Viewers may know Marvel from her ongoing role as Officer/Detective Nancy Parras from "The District" (2000-04), or as the warehouse realtor in "Synecdoche, New York." She's a three-time Obie winner who seems absolutely comfortable as Alcott, and because of that we also feel comfortable.
I can't imagine this film working as well as it does without the right actors, and all of them do well. Molly Schreiber plays the teen Louisa May, Emily Strikeman the child Louisa May, and Haley Garvin the toddler Louisa May, and so there's a fullness of life lived here that again seems lacking in other biographies. Further authenticity comes from filming at Orchard House (the family home where Alcott wrote Little Women), Fruitlands Museum (site of Bronson Alcott's failed utopian experiment), Wayside (a Little Women and later Hawthorne home), the Ralph Waldo Emerson House, and other Concord, Lexington, and Boston locations.
"Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women" is a cradle-to-grave biography that focuses as well on Bronson and his experimental schools. We learn about the family dynamics and the relationship between the sisters that would eventually be transformed into the March family adventures in Little Women, and we also begin to appreciate how "connected" the family was. Neighbors included Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, and this film emphasizes Alcott's unique education for a woman. We follow the family through financial hard times, and endure right along with them the death of Elizabeth (Anna Finkelstein) and the stubborn antics of British reformer Charles Lane (Peter Haydu), whose strange ideas cause Bronson and Abigail's estrangement and Louisa May's resentment. We trace the development of Louisa May's writing career, her volunteer service (and subsequent bout of Typhoid Fever) as a nurse during the Civil War, her trip to Europe with her artistic sister May (Marianna Bassham), her brief attraction to a Polish man (Lewis Wheeler), and yes, the years she was finally able to spend living a life of relative contentment.
Helping to add perspective are writer Geraldine Brooks, Orchard House director Jan Turnquist, and Alcott scholars Sarah Elbert (S.U.N.Y. Binghamton), John Matteson (John Jay College), Joel Myerson (Univ. of South Carolina), and Daniel Shealy (Univ. of North Carolina). And this group of academics even gets in some "zinger" lines. Adding to the interest is that this isn't just the biography of a writer. Louisa May Alcott lived on the cusp on unique experiences. "I was an abolitionist at the age of three," she recalls, and a feminist from birth. "I long for battle, like a warhorse when he smells the powder," she says, later confessing, "I think my natural ambition is the lurid style." This uncommon woman drinks from a flask, holds her own with philosophers, and runs in full dress for the sheer pleasure of it. Alcott, who spent time with Emerson in his library and with Thoreau at Walden Pond, is an obvious free spirit who can be cantankerous and spiteful at times--images we don't often see in our canonical writers, much less a female one. Yet, it was Bronson Alcott who gave her the room to grow and be herself. He did not try to break her spirit, and his role in shaping her is as evident as her mother's, when you watch this film.
Director Porter really only makes one misstep, as far as I'm concerned, and that's with her unfortunate decision to incorporate quaint cut-out animations at moments when we're to assume entry into Alcott's mind when she thinks she's going crazy, and, worse, when we get a sampling of critical responses to one of her books. Tonally and visually it just feels too different from the rest of the film. But thankfully these moments are few, and this accomplished film manages to do what most literary biographies cannot: it moves us. We leave with an appreciation of Louisa May Alcott and a better understanding for her place in U.S. cultural as well as literary history. In the end, that's quite an accomplishment. Mark Twain would be proud.
On a DVD Town scale I'd give "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women and 8 out of 10.