The critical reaction to the latest (sixth) film version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” has been, to say the least, interesting.
Since Alcott’s book is considered a classic of little-girl lit, you might have expected female critics to have been kinder to the movie than the males. But that isn’t exactly how things have worked out.
The inescapable Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both liked the new “Little Women” (“Two enthusiastic thumbs up!”) as did Entertainment Tonight’s Leonard Maltin, Sneak Previews’ Michael Medved and a number of other male reviewers.
But writing in the San Francisco Examiner, Barbara Shulgasser had this to say:
“So much of this movie echoes prevailing cliches of these politically correct times … The politics of this movie begin to seem as impossibly perfect as its characters. We ought to admire these people, but they have one quality that great people never have: smugness.”
Even a more moderate review, by Eleanor Ringel of the Atlanta Constitution, echoed some of these sentiments, using words and phrases like “embalmed,” “reverential,” “overemphasized gender politics” and “Hollywood’s version of a Statement” to poke holes in the movie.
Not all the reviews, of course, have broken down along gender lines. My own, for example, was more of a knock than a boost. And Janet Maslin of The New York Times also was an exception.
“Ladies, get out your hand-hemmed handkerchiefs for the loveliest ‘Little Women’ ever on screen,” she enthused.
But Caryn James, Maslin’s colleague at the Times, was more typical of their gender in dissing the film in a long piece about the whole “Little Women” phenomenon. The “misguided” film, James complained, “strains to make this 19th-century novel relevant today” by “clumsily and without historical context” emphasizing “suffragist” and other political concerns, and “dragging them into the movie.”
Why have female critics generally been rougher on - and, I would say, more clearheaded about - the new “Little Women” than their male counterparts have been? This development may suggest that some of my brothers in cinematic scrutiny have applied lower standards to what they consider to be “just a women’s picture.”
I would have thought that by now we males would be beyond such patronizing, I’m-sure-the-ladies-will-enjoy-it attitudes.
But maybe not.