By Andrea Thompson
Penny Marshall was an amazing entertainer who broke new ground for women. She got her big break as the Laverne half of the TV show “Laverne & Shirley,” which ran for eight seasons, from 1976 to 1983. When she decided to turn to directing, she eventually broke major ground with “Big” in 1988, which was the first movie directed by a woman to gross over $100 million.
Four years later in 1992, Marshall made “A League of Their Own,” which in many ways is a far more impressive film. The fact that it was a sports movie directed by a woman is remarkable enough, but the fact that the movie is about women who actually play sports, rather than being sidelined into traditional roles as supportive wives and mothers, is still far too impressive today.
“A League of Their Own” also focuses on the relationships between the women themselves, rather than their love interests, more specifically on the bond between Dottie (Geena Davis) and her younger sister Kit (Lori Petty). They're both young women during WWII, when all the men fighting overseas threatens to put an at least temporary end to Major League Baseball. Desperate, the MLB decides to create a women's league, sending out scouts to recruit potential players. When one, played by Jon Lovitz in a small but hilarious role, sees Dottie play, he tries to get her on the team rather than Kit, who is far more desperate to escape life on their family's farm. Dottie is reluctant, but when she learns Kit won't get a chance to try out unless she also goes, Dottie agrees.
Of course, Dottie and Kit are both chosen to play on the team, which is called the Rockford Peaches. The other players who eventually join them are also very enjoyable to watch, and the actresses who play them, among them Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna, are clearly deeply committed to telling this story. Marshall had the cast go through baseball training, and the effort they put into it shows, with many of them suffering some very real injuries during filming.
“A League of Their Own” also addresses the very real sexism the women faced. There are concerns that the players are in danger becoming too masculine, and throughout there are constant reassurances that they're still feminine. In news reels, the players are shown putting on makeup, serving men coffee, and knitting. It seems especially hilarious that the League would dress them in short uniforms and make them take classes meant to them into “respectable ladies,” but it isn't so surprising when you think about the way female athletes are still viewed, with the restrictions the NFL places on their cheerleaders being one of the most egregious examples. There's also no drinking, their social life must be approved, and no men. It isn't long before the women rebel, evading their chaperones to head out for some good times.
There's also a small, but powerful moment when a black woman throws a ball back to one of the players, powerfully and skillfully, then quietly nods. It hits that the women allowed to play, and have to be so careful not to offend, are all white. Black women are never given a chance to prove themselves. The fact that “A League of Their Own” acknowledges this, however briefly, is remarkable in a 1992 film.
There are also the cliches though. In almost every underdog sports film, you have the disgraced coach. In this case, it's Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks. Hanks so often plays the good guy, but every now and then he reminds us that he can go dark, but it would be more accurate to say he goes sleaze here. Even if he eventually comes around because he can't help but respect the effort the women put in, he still gets to spout off lines such as, “I haven't got ball players, I've got girls! Girls are what you sleep with after the game, not what you coach during the game!” Far more entertaining is when he signs a kid's baseball and tells him to avoid the clap.
Needless to say, I love this movie, even when it dips too far into sentiment. Most of my annoyance with it has to with Geena Davis. It isn't her fault, as you can always count on her to do impressive work, which she does here as well. It's just that her character Dottie grates on me, mostly because her main purpose is to be likable. She is a very skilled player, she helps Dugan improve his life, and she does right by her sister Kit. She even has 90s era Bill Pullman for a husband, and I can't help but wonder if they made this guy a dreamboat so we can forgive Davis for leaving baseball. Pullman is nothing but supportive of her when she decides to play in the World Series, but I can't help but wonder how supportive he'd be if Dottie had more ambitions for herself. Not that we have to worry about that, since she even needs encouragement from her children to go to the reunion 40 years later.
I much prefer Kit, with all her anger, messiness, unreasonable reactions, and especially her drive. She knows her sister will always do right by her, and most annoying of all, that she's always right in general. It only makes it all the more painfully plain to Kit just how much she's always been in her sister's shadow. So Kit is relieved when she's traded to another team and she'll finally be able to escape. (Spoiler to follow.) One of the most satisfying moments for me is when she knocks Dottie down to win the game and finally achieves something for herself. That their reconciliation at the end becomes more heartfelt is an added bonus.
It's an impressive movie, and Penny Marshall had an impressive career. Yet it has a tinge of the same old frustration. After she made a few less than impressive films, Marshall's directing gigs got few and far between, and she found more work as an actress. More and more, I'm finding it harder to find contentment with the few movies women did manage to make in spite of the system, and mourning more for the films that never saw the light of day. That contentment seems dangerous now, both for the female directors who are both up-and-coming and those who continue to work. However, I can wholeheartedly say that Penny Marshall gave us not just great films about women, but new ways they could see themselves, and thus dreams they may not have had without her. RIP.