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In a League of Her Own: Remembering Penny Marshall

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Penny Marshall

Penny Marshall is perhaps best known for her films Big, A League of Their Own and Awakenings, but before she turned her hand to directing, she was an actress and had been in business for a long time. She was a woman who understood the industry and took the leap into directing films at a time where many female filmmakers were struggling to get work. She was the first female filmmaker to direct a film that went on to make a record $100 million at the U.S. box office, quite an achievement at the time, especially considering that many women still struggle to be given big budgets even now.

Marshall was the daughter of Marjorie Marshall, a tap dance teacher, and Tony Marshall, a film director and producer. Her parents’ background in entertainment, along with her brother, Garry Marshall’s, background as a comedy writer and her sister’s background as a casting director and producer, helped to kick start Penny’s own career into acting.

Penny began her showbiz career very early on as a tap dancer at age three, and later taught tap at her mother’s dance school. After high school, she majored in psychology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She met and married football player Michael Henry there and the couple had a daughter, Tracy, in 1964

Penny Marshall

Marshall’s first acting role was in a television commercial for Head and Shoulders, She was hired to play a girl with stringy, unattractive hair, and Farrah Fawcett was hired to play a girl with thick, bouncy hair. It was during the late 60s that Marshall went through her first divorce and between acting jobs she worked as a secretary, and raised her daughter alone. Even before she became a great director, Marshall was inspirational proving how women can be strong and determined despite the odds.

Marshall would go on to marry Rob Reiner in 1971, but they would divorce in 1981. Reiner still speaks fondly of Penny Marshall and recently stated the following, “I loved Penny. I grew up with her. She was born with a great gift. She was born with a funnybone and the instinct of how to use it. I was very lucky to have lived with her and her funnybone. I will miss her.”

After making a name for herself with recurring roles on The Odd Couple and Happy Days, Marshall shot to fame with Laverne & Shirley, a Happy Days spin-off that ran from 1976 to 1983. At the encouragement of her brother, Marshall became interested in directing. While staring on Laverne and Shirley, Penny made her debut as a director and directed four episodes of that show as well as other TV assignments.

She soon moved on to theatrical films, her first film being Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986) starring Whoopi Goldberg. Marshall became the director when the first director (Howard Zieff) dropped out. Jumpin’ Jack Flash wasn’t a critical success, with Roger Ebert calling it ‘”an exhausted screenplay—an anthology of old ideas and worn-out cliches” but rather than allow this to deter her, Marshall was determined to become a director.


Marshall went on to direct several successful feature films after the mid-1980s, including 1988’s Big starring Tom Hanks. The film which is centered around the character of Josh Baskin, a young boy who makes a wish “to be big” and is then aged to adulthood overnight, remains a well-loved family classic. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Hanks) and Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. In 2000, Big was ranked 42nd on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Laughs” list.

Marshall followed Big with Awakenings (1990) starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Awakenings is based on Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir of the same title. It tells the story of Malcolm Sayer, who, in 1969, discovered beneficial effects of the drug L-Dopa. He administered it to catatonic patients who survived the 1917–28 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Leonard Lowe and the rest of the patients were awakened after decades and have to deal with a new life in a new time. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards. Despite critically panning Marshall’s first film, Ebert would go on to give Awakenings 4-out-of-4 stars.

A League of Their Own followed in 1992. The film starred Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. The film tells the fictionalized account of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. In 2012, A League of Their Own was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Marshall was inspired to make the film after viewing the 1987 documentary about the AAGPBL titled “A League of their Own” on television. The film was another success for Marshall, earning $132.4 million at the global box office.

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The Preacher’s Wife followed in 1996 and starred Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. The film was a remake of a 19947 film called The Bishop’s Wife, and follows an angel which comes to Earth to help a preacher save his church and his family. Unfortunately the film’s production was plagued by poor weather and accidents (which included an elderly parishioner falling and breaking her hip and later dying. And, in the middle of filming, a crew member was struck by a car and killed). Houston later admitted “in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2010, [that] by the time ‘The Preacher’s Wife’ was released, ‘(doing drugs) was an everyday thing. Marshall’s director didn’t go unnoticed with Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times singling out Penny Marshall’s directing for being “consistently wise and judicious.”

Her final film, Riding in Cars With Boys, came out in 2001 and earned critical acclaim. Based on the autobiography of the same name by Beverly Donofrio, the film was about a woman who overcame difficulties, (including being a teen mother), and who later earned a master’s degree.  It stars Drew Barrymore, Steve Zahn, Brittany Murphy, and James Woods. The film received mixed reviews, with Roger Ebert giving the film three out of four stars. In his review of Riding in Cars With Boys, Ebert stated that “A film like this is refreshing and startling in the way it cuts loose from formula and shows us confused lives we recognize… This movie is closer to the truth: A lot depends on what happens to you, and then a lot depends on how you let it affect you.”

Riding in Cars With Boys would be Marshall’s last film, but she continued to act and produce films. And, recently, she had been working on a documentary about Dennis Rodman, titled Rodman, which the L.A. Times says is slated to come out on September 1st, 2019.

Despite all her success, Marshall said that she was plagued by self-doubt. “I always feel like somehow I’m going to be a failure,” she told the L.A. Times. “I’m from the negativity and depression school. When I see bad reviews, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re probably right.’ With directing, I know people on movie sets want leadership, but I don’t exude that captain-of-the-ship image. I’d get on the phone with [producer] Jim Brooks and apologize all the time and say, ‘I’m no good at this.’”

Looking back on her career, in a quote published by the Daily News, she commented that “[I] led an oddly charmed life for someone who thought she was not a charming person.” Marshall remains one of cinema’s greatest female film directors, and helped a generation of women realise that they had every right to be behind the camera, not just in front of it. She will be missed, but by God, she won’t go forgotten.



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