“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!”  So complained Jo March in the opening line of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a novel as treasured today as it was 150 years ago.

But this year, all of us who spent many happy hours losing our young selves in the triumphs and tragedies of Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth March won’t face a Christmas without a present. Why?

Because on Christmas Day,  director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film of the classic coming-of-age tale opens across the U.S. And if advance notices mean anything, the stellar cast more than does justice to Alcott’s ahead-of-its time tribute to feminism.

So if you doubt that Little Women’s message still mattersin the age of Me Too, consider this: Meryl Streep wanted very much to be part of it.

As Gerwig told the Hollywood Reporter, Meryl claimed the role of the sisters’ rich, domineering spinster aunt as they were discussing the film over lunch. “I’ll be the battle-ax. Write me a good Aunt March.”

And a good Aunt March is what she got, full of unsolicited advice in the best old-meddling-relative tradition. But it was what came next in the conversation that helped shape the spirit of the entire film.  

The Actress Directs the Director

In words that would inspire one of the film’s most memorable monologues, Meryl explained a woman’s place in the world of Louisa May Alcott:

“This is what you have to communicate to the audience about the position of women, that they don’t even own their own children…. If you wanted to leave a marriage, you could leave but you would leave with nothing, not even your kids. “

And this Tonight Show clip shows how Greta used Florence Pugh’s Amy March to tell it just the way Meryl said it was:

“I’m just a woman. And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family.  And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married.

 And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. So don’t tell me marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is.”

As Greta put it, “Meryl clarified a lot of things for me as a collaborator. She’s not Meryl Streep for nothing.”

“I Was Saving Money”

Even at 70, being Meryl Streep has its perks. Florence realized how many on a cold day when the two of them, in full Victorian garb, sat in a carriage in a Boston park waiting for their horses to be hitched up.

Tired of the delay, Meryl wished aloud for a snack of French fries to help her pass the time. In less than 10 minutes, a production assistant appeared with a bag of hot-from-the-fryer Wendy’s fries.

Later, Meryl joked about the incident at a Director’s Guild of America Q+A with Greta and her fellow cast members.  Her response when asked what motivated Aunt March?

“Aunt March is all about the money. It’s how the world measures value. She is the reality check on all the… idealistic people who populate her family… that she basically underwrites.”

 And the French fries? They helped her get into her penny-pinching character by “saving money.” It’s definitely not the healthiest form of method acting – but when you’re Meryl Streep or Aunt March, who’s going to question you?

Which Little Women character made the greatest impression on you and why? In what way did reading the book shape your idea of the kind of woman you wanted to be? And which of Meryl Streep’s many roles is your favorite? Please join in the conversation!   

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