Once in a while, a movie trailer comes along that single-handedly renews your will to live. It’s become clear that Little Women’s is that movie trailer for this moment, the thing that will sustain us in the doldrums of summer’s end, through the slog of fall, and right up to the movie’s release on Dec. 25. Since the project was announced last year, there’s been a certain it-ness surrounding Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic book, much of it based on casting: Not only did Gerwig manage to reunite two of her Lady Bird leads—though not Lucas Hedges, sorry—she also landed Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep, all of whom are on hot streaks right now (except for Streep, who is on a hot streak always). The reaction to the trailer’s release confirms that this is, if not the movie event of the century, at least the movie event of the century of the week.
How did Gerwig get basically every actor I (and everyone else who writes about movies on the internet) worship to be in a movie together? Looking back on Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Little Women, it seems to boast a similar combined star wattage: Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Gabriel Byrne, etc. But did audiences in 1994 know how good they had it? Were they buzzing about Christian Bale and Winona Ryder appearing in a movie together around watercoolers that year? Was a young Kirsten Dunst the equivalent of a 2019 Florence Pugh? I decided to look at the casting choices and evaluate which group has more star power.
You’ve gotta feel sorry for the 1994 version that we’re starting here, because who wants to go up against Meryl Streep? But the truth is that Mary Wickes, who played the dowager role in the earlier movie, was a force in her own right. At the time of filming, Wickes had been acting for 50 years, building up a résumé of character work, and she was hot off the biggest successes of her career, Sister Act and Sister Act 2. Streep, especially at this victory-lap phase of her career, is, well, Meryl Streep, and therefore unimpeachable, but there’s an argument to be made that Wickes was a more natural fit for the role of boorish Aunt March. It’s not that Streep can’t do boorish—please!—it’s just that Wickes made a career of it. As her New York Times obituary put it, “She specialized in sourness, or, more politely, acerbity, which she used to her comic advantage in roles as housekeepers, spinsters, wicked stepmothers, nuns and back-talking secretaries.” Still, if we’re judging by wattage, it doesn’t get much more dazzling than having Streep’s name on your poster.
Wickes: sun with small cloud emoji
Streep: the literal sun
See what I mean when I said both casts were all killer, no filler? The Laura Dern and Susan Sarandon of 2019 both have enviable careers. It’s hard to beat the #dernaissance, the hot streak that Dern has been on over the past few years with two seasons of Big Little Lies, the Twin Peaks revival, a Star Wars movie, and more. Sarandon, when not sparring with Debra Messing on Twitter, has turned out great work consistently, with recent highlights including Feud: Bette and Joan and The Meddler. (By the way, see The Meddler!) But to complicate matters, it is not now-Sarandon we must compare Dern with but then-Sarandon, who in 1994 was coming off of Thelma & Louise and Lorenzo’s Oil, both of which she scored Oscar nominations for, making this stiff competition indeed. It’s worth noting that at the time, the Washington Post said that because Sarandon was the “contemporary embodiment of smart sexiness,” that meant she wasn’t right to play prim Marmee.
We’re going to have to give the edge to Dern, who hasn’t yet depleted the indie goodwill she gained from two seasons of the fondly remembered Enlightened and dating a former NBA player and rooming with Marianne Williamson (!?), bathing her in the kind of glow that makes magazines want to profile her and people like Gerwig want to cast her.
Sarandon: a standard incandescent lightbulb
Eliza Scanlen played rollerblading town princess Amma Crellin in last summer’s Sharp Objects, and there couldn’t have been a juicier, creepier role for the Australian actress’s introduction to American audiences. Another good get for Gerwig, even though that character is a far cry from Beth March. But by the time Little Women comes out, Sharp Objects will have been a year and a half ago—will moviegoers remember Scanlen and her dollhouse? Will she inadvertently imbue Beth with murder-y vibes? Meanwhile, Claire Danes had a magical year in 1994: Little Women came out that Christmas, right in the middle of the critically acclaimed first and only season of My So-Called Life, the show that made Danes a generational icon (even if it was tragically canceled just days before Little Women’s release). This may be a case of letting hindsight exert undue influence—Danes followed My So-Called Life up with the also-so-important Romeo + Juliet, went to Yale, and pioneered cry-acting—but this one seems pretty clearly to belong to Danes, whose sensitive, sweet, sick Beth found resonance with plain-sensitive Angela Chase.
Scanlen: Alpha Centauri B
Danes: Alpha Centauri A
Trini Alvarado, 1994’s Meg, already had roles in a few movies (including one of Armstrong’s) but was a fairly fresh face by the time she starred in Little Women. (As for what ever happened to her, she’s acted here and there but sadly never became the second coming of Andie MacDowell she had the potential to be.) Then there’s Emma Watson, who is not only mega-famous for playing one of the most important characters in literature for almost her entire life but is also recognized as an influencer in fashion and feminism. This is why I think casting Watson as Meg may quietly be Gerwig’s most impressive bit of wizardry, especially since the role was originally going to go to Emma Stone and was recast. Meg is not the starring role or even the fun supporting role (that’s Amy), and Watson has headlined movies on her own and could have insisted on Jo or bust, but Gerwig still managed to lock her down. Happily, it seems like a mutually beneficial situation for everyone—except Trini Alvarado.
Alvarado: a sequin
Watson: a disco ball
Gabriel Byrne was already a known entity in Hollywood by 1994. His most acclaimed performance at that point was in 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, and he had a busy year leading up to Little Women, starring in A Simple Twist of Fate and Trial by Jury, separating from wife Ellen Barkin, and signing a first-look deal with Miramax. An Australian paper summed him up as “your thinking woman’s Irish crumpet.” In the 2019 version, the role goes to Louis Garrel, a French actor and filmmaker I had never heard of, which doesn’t matter, because it seems like the right people know exactly who he is: The New York Times caught “the brooding, dark-eyed poster boy of cinematic hauteur” vaping last summer at the Saint Laurent fashion show. Oh God, and he’s acting in an upcoming Roman Polanski movie. Garrel’s whole French thing lends him a certain appeal, but Byrne seems to have been more mainstream famous when he took on Bhaer: Let’s give this one to the crumpet.
Byrne: twinkly Christmas lights
Garrel: an ordinary poinsettia
In the 1994 movie, the role of Amy was split between two actresses, Kirsten Dunst for Amy at age 12 and Samantha Mathis for Amy at age 16, whereas the 2019 version seems to have Florence Pugh riding solo in the part. On the basis of numbers alone, I question this decision. If what the new Little Women is promising us is “every single famous person we love,” more is always better—I would have loved to see what tween ingénue Gerwig could have found for the role. And I do think that, on principle, people enjoy seeing a different actor in the younger version of a role. (Remember that Tumblr account, Kid Casting?) Florence Pugh has had a great 2018 and 2019 with The Little Drummer Girl and Midsommar, and makes a worthy addition to the cast. But no single Pugh could hope to compete with a combination of child-star Kiki right after Interview With the Vampire and ’90s queen Samantha Mathis, who was the period’s version of that actress who’s in everything and even seems likable in stuff like Super Mario Bros. All the limes to Dunst and Mathis!
Dunst and Mathis: two of those glow-in-the-dark jellyfish
Pugh: only one of those glow-in-the-dark jellyfish
Christian Bale was a phenomenal Laurie, and long live the famous strand of saliva.
But. Some of what makes watching Bale’s Laurie so incredible now is that Bale, then a cult star—Eric Stoltz, who played his tutor, John, in the movie, was then actually the more high-profile of the two—went on to become massively famous later on. In 1994, Bale was the kid from Newsies and Empire of the Sun. Little Women ’94 bet on him and by God, that bet paid off. This is quite a different scenario than our dear Timothée Chalamet currently finds himself in: Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name took him from no-name kid to king of the universe. GQ put it this way in a 2018 profile: “Out of nowhere, then: A generational performer arrives.” I mean!
Bale: a single prayer candle
Chalamet: a menorah
This is it, the final faceoff, and it’s a hard one: We’ve got someone who is basically synonymous with the decade of the ’90s, Winona Ryder, versus Lady Bird herself, Saoirse Ronan. Who was the more anticipated Jo? Let’s take a look back at Winona Ryder’s standing circa 1994: She started that year with Reality Bites, the Gen X touchstone, and the pitch for Little Women was that she would be, per the New York Times, “a Jo for the 1990’s.” To hear the Boston Herald tell it, Ryder was the Gerwig of the 1994 film: “[I]t’s no secret that [Ryder] was a prime mover in getting the latest Little Women made and that it would never have seen the light of day without her name behind it.” A profile from a Canadian news agency ticked off her achievements: At 22, she was 10 years and 15 major movies into her career, which made her “more than just one of Hollywood’s most admired young actresses. … She has become a power within the industry.”
This is not to say there weren’t naysayers. “Can Ryder compare to Katharine Hepburn’s Jo?” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked at the time, referring to the 1933 George Cukor version of Little Women. Ronan, in contrast, is also a beloved actress and she’s been on audiences’ radar since she was a kid in Atonement. She charmed us in Brooklyn, then came back to break our charm meters with Lady Bird. But in terms of singular influence, she’s no Winona (though yes, Gerwig makes up for some of that). Ryder is the Hepburn with which she’ll be compared.
Ryder: a supernova
Ronan: a regular nova
A few more roles to consider: Gerwig’s Little Women also finds parts for Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, and Chris Cooper. The 1994 version had no comparable trio of beloved middle-aged and older actors. But as previously mentioned, in 1994’s ledger had Stoltz, who was a big deal at the time. Knight Ridder called him the “most-employed actor of ’94,” and an entertainment news service labeled him “the actor of the moment,” before adding, “Eric Stoltz looks like Jesus.” Gerwig has a hunky British actor who’s done a lot of TV in the John Brooke role, but it’s the combined wattage of Odenkirk, Letts, and Cooper that wins this one for the 2019 version.
1994: trick birthday candles