Monday, December 28, 2009 on PBS (check local listings)
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Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, is an almost universally recognized name. Her reputation as a morally upstanding New England spinster, reflecting the conventional propriety of mid-19th century Concord, is firmly established. Raised among reformers, iconoclasts and Transcendentalists, the intellectual protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Alcott was actually a free thinker, with democratic ideals and progressive values about women – a worldly careerist of sorts. Most surprising is that Alcott led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life not discovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts – a far cry from her better-known works featuring fatherly mentors, courageous mothers and impish children.
Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women’ is the recipient of numerous awards and film festival selections, including:
Booklist’s Editors’ Choice: Best Video of 2009
CINE GOLD EAGLE 2008
Grand Award: Providence Film Festival
Audience Choice Award: Cape Cod Filmmaker Takeover
Best Feature Documentary: L.A. Reel Women Int’l Film Festival
Best Family Feature: Garden State Film Festival
Rhode Island International Film Festival
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Guangzhou Documentary Film Festival
Santa Fe Film Festival
Through Women’s Eyes Film Festival
Read reviews of the film
What came out of all this is a remarkably detailed portrait of a strong-minded woman who was far ahead of her time and far more complex than the portrait of the dainty lady that others have previously presented. Elizabeth Marvel gives a remarkably insightful performance as Louisa May, full of humor, passion, emotion and progressive thinking that makes her come alive.
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.