As a teenager, I would often take myself off to the cinema after school; part of it was the new found ability to be independent and do things on my own, but mostly it came of a desire to escape into my love of the movies for a couple of hours. Naturally, those movies you see when young are what you will always regard as a ‘golden-age’; my teens covered the late 80’s and early 90’s with the release of such movies as ‘Back to the Future’, ‘The Goonies’, ‘Die Hard’, ‘The Princess Bride’, ‘Beaches’, the list feels endless to me.
Three of the most memorable movies were ‘Big’ (1988), ‘Awakenings’ (1990) and ‘A League of their Own’ (1992); directed by Penny Marshall. Wildly different in theme, these were all brave choices that don’t on paper shout out ‘hit’. All the braver considering that Penny was practically the only successful female director on the scene at that time. Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow were just coming into their own but everyone else seemed to disappear after one-hit.
There are no guns, no special effects, no Arnie – these are character-driven stories with fun, passion and empathy: ‘Big’ is the story of a boy who wishes to be grown up; ‘Awakenings’ is based on the true story of Oliver Sacks’ work with catatonic patients in a psychiatric hospital; ‘A League of their Own’ is again, based on a true-life story of the women baseball players who kept the leagues going while the male players were fighting in WWII.
What connects these three very different stories, is Penny Marshall’s ability to put magic into real-life situations. In ‘Big’ the magic is more obvious but is only there to act as the catalyst to enable the story. ‘Awakenings’ is like a modern fairytale where the statues come to life and the magic in ‘League’ comes through the camaraderie of the women breaking down barriers and doing something they love to do rather than something they feel obliged to do.
Being a natural comedian also meant that Penny was able to imbue her movies with a sense of fun; whilst not really comedies, there are some properly funny moments in all three movies, even in ‘Awakenings’. Then on the reverse, all three movies will make most people weep buckets with their delicate depiction of the poignancy of loss (innocence, life, youth).
Credit must also be given for Penny Marshall’s ability to elicit such amazing performances from her actors. Tom Hanks utterly convinces that this grown-man is actually only a little boy; Robin Williams and Robert De Niro go totally against type as they both portray quiet, sensitive, thoughtful characters and who knew Madonna could actually be a really good actress?
With still very few women directors making movies today, Penny Marshall was definitely in a league of her own.