On Monday, December 17th, 2018 we said goodbye to Penny Marshall. Known for her work both in front of and behind the camera, Marshall first made her name portraying Laverne DeFazio on the celebrated sitcom Laverne & Shirley.
She would go on to direct films like the Oscar-nominated Awakenings, and even the seminal ’80s classic Big, which made her the first female director to gross over $100 million at the box office.
But I’d like to not simply recap her career, and instead focus on a single piece of her work. A film that I grew up with. A film that I’ve only recently begun to recognize had great impact on my life, as a person and a filmmaker. I’d like to talk about A League of Their Own.
I grew up in a sporty family, so it stands to reason we watched a lot of sports movies (The Mighty Ducks were on semi-permanent rotation). But none of them were like A League of Their Own. Sure, it was different because it was all women (which made it a favorite of my softball-loving sister) but also because of the way it told the story. A League of Their Own wasn’t so much about winning, but proving you were always good enough.
The film tells the story of Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) who, along with her kid sister Kit (Lori Petty), is drafted into the first Women’s Professional Baseball League in the midst of WWII. Much of the film becomes an ensemble piece once the teams are made, with each player getting their moment at one point or another. From the illiterate Shirley breathing a sigh of relief when one of the girls helps find her name on draft pick, to former Miss Georgia Helen Sue knocking a heckler off his own “stage” with a well-timed slip of the hand. It’s through these smaller characters that the film becomes a mosaic of feminine struggles and determination.
It’s the little touches that Marshall gives to so many moments throughout that makes the film not only work, but to invoke empathy. Like how Kit is almost struggling to remain in frame while the Scout (Jon Lovitz) tries to recruit Dottie. Lori Petty’s blocking is always trying to get out from behind something or someone, to get his attention and the audience. Begging to get into the League, begging to be seen, until an agreement is made that Dottie has to go as well.
Or scenes that would have been played wrong in the hands of a lesser director. The telegram scene, in which Jimmie Dugan (Tom Hanks) has to inform one of his players of the death of her husband, makes the proper choice of focusing on the players instead of the coach (who happens to be played by a huge star). The audience is shown not only the dread on their faces, but the looks of worry from the unmarried players, one even racing out of the room to get help. Marshall drags out the tension of the beat until it’s nearly unbearable, as Dugan stops in front of Dottie and Betty. It has to be one of them. The look Betty gives Dottie before, a last look of desperation, gets me every time.
While most of the film is a whole-hearted embrace of female empowerment, Marshall takes care to go one step further in relaying its feminist message. One that says “Yes, men need feminism too.” And it comes in the form of perhaps the most famous scene in the film.
It’s the moment right after Hanks recites that famous line. Dugan steps back up to Evelyn and relates that he went through the same mistreatment from his own managers. It’s his excuse. “I handled it, why can’t you handle it.” But he hasn’t handled it. Dugan is a drunk who got this job through sheer luck of name recognition and clearly has many personal problems he hasn’t dealt with. And while he begins to take that journey through the rest of the film, this little speech shows us just a little piece of the puzzle. Also, it’s worth noting that the umpire who confronts Dugan over this outburst only throws him out when his own masculinity is in question (“Anyone ever tell you ya look like a penis with a little hat on?”) instead of sticking up for the women on the team (merely giving a condescending bit of advice: “Treat any one these girls like you would your mother.”)
It’s the rivalry between Dottie and Kit that drives the narrative, but it’s not only on the field. Dottie has pretty simple needs and desires, wanting little more than to live a quiet life raising a family, but her natural talent of the game practically demands more from her. Whereas Kit wants more than the quiet life, she wants to leave, to find something, to prove she’s more than what everyone sees in her.
This all culminates in the last game of the series, which creates an interesting narrative dilemma. The story we’ve been watching is Dottie’s, literally her memories from back in the day, but when she returns to the team for the final game she’s completed her arc. Having always looked down on the League as something she never wanted to be a part of, for the first time she’s there for herself, not for Kit.
We watch the majority of the game rooting for Dottie and the Peaches, but there comes a shift where we realize we’re now watching Kit’s story instead. Marshall doesn’t accentuate this change through convoluted writing or editing or cinematography, but in how she portrays the two sisters. We start seeing the most vulnerable and scared side of Kit. She’s like a child who’s gotten themselves in over their head. On the other side, Dottie becomes like a force of nature, even stunning the other team’s catcher simply by walking past.
Finally, the last play of the game, Dottie is catching and Kit’s up to bat. Dottie gives her pitcher a bit of advice: “High and fast. Can’t hit ‘em, can’t lay off ‘em.” Dottie finally refuses to coddle Kit, because Dottie finally wants to win. Making it all the more important when Kit actually hits that last pitch and then getting Dottie to drop the ball as she plows into her running home. It’s the victory that Kit has wanted from the beginning, and we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she did it on her own (even ignoring the signal to stop at third base).
It’s a loud proclamation from Marshall, a searing endorsement of the capabilities of these women, and of all women. Through Kit we see what sheer determination and strength of will can do. That in spite of the doubt, confusion, and vitriol, there is a way.
“You got yourself into the League. I got you on the train.”