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Penny Marshall’s groundbreaking directing career, explained in 3 movies

With Big, A League of Their Own, and Awakenings, Marshall blazed a trail for women directors.

A League of Their Own
A League of Their Own might be Penny Marshall’s best movie.
Columbia Pictures

Penny Marshall, who died on Monday at age 75, will probably always be best known as Laverne DeFazio, of the hit ABC sitcom Laverne & Shirley. The show (created by Marshall’s brother Garry) was a spin-off from Happy Days, and it was a huge success, running from 1976 to 1983.

But Marshall was also a groundbreaking film director — and a groundbreaking woman film director, still a rarity in Hollywood today but even more so in the 1980s, when Marshall started making movies of her own.

Here are three big milestones that Marshall reached as a director, and the movies that got her there.

Big (1988)

Marshall’s second film as a director was Big, which starred Tom Hanks as a 12-year-old boy who finds himself trapped in a 30-year-old man’s body after wishing to be older — then ends up as vice president of product development at a toy company, where he learns some valuable life lessons about why being an adult isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (Her first film was 1986’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash.)

Big was a hit with critics, and netted Hanks his first Oscar nomination, as well as a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It also made Marshall the first woman director in history to gross more than $100 million at the box office, bringing in $151 million worldwide (including $116 million in the US).

After that, Marshall’s professional reputation took off.

Awakenings (1990)

Awakenings is not nearly as good as the other two movies listed here. It’s a typical early ’90s Oscar bid, uniting two big stars behind a story about how a person who’s not living with some life-altering condition learns a lesson about being human after spending some time with a person who is. (It’s a very clear attempt to recapture some of the magic of 1988 Best Picture winner Rain Man in that regard.)

But it’s the one movie Marshall directed that was nominated for Best Picture — along with nominations for the film’s screenplay (by Steve Zaillian) and lead actor Robert De Niro (who plays a man with encephalitis lethargica, which has kept him in a catatonic state for decades before treatment “awakens” him).

Marshall herself was not nominated for Best Director, which suggests some degree of the bias she was pushing back against at this point in her career. Perhaps even more remarkably, Awakenings was just the second movie directed by a woman to receive a Best Picture nomination, after 1986’s Children of a Lesser God (directed by Randa Haines).

As an early ’90s Oscar play, Awakenings is perfectly fine, if schmaltzy. Marshall is well-served by casting Robin Williams (then embarking on a long decade of alternating between broad comedies and blatant attempts to win his own Oscar) as De Niro’s doctor, as Williams keeps the film light and lively.

It is not a great movie, and it pales in comparison to Big or A League of Their Own. But it’s a perfectly entertaining one and an enjoyable enough night at the movies — exactly the sort of film that was being nominated for and winning Oscars in 1990, when Marshall made history with this one.

A League of Their Own (1992)

If A League of Their Own isn’t Marshall’s best movie (and you could make a strong argument that it is), it’s at least the one that most exemplifies everything she was going for. It’s also her second movie to make more than $100 million at the box office, marking the first time a woman had ever directed two $100-million-plus-grossing films. That it managed to make that much money in the shadow of the then-enormous Batman Returns (released just 11 days before it) is a testament to just how much audiences loved it.

League follows two sisters (Geena Davis and Lori Petty) who join a women’s baseball league during the heart of World War II, when many men in professional leagues were conscripted into the armed forces. The movie then hits all of the traditional sports movie tropes — with exciting come-from-behind victories and personal showdowns on the field — while also quietly building a story about sisterhood, in all senses of that word, as the two main characters’ relationship is tested and strong bonds are formed among teammates (who include Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell).

The film also marked a bit of a comeback for the then-slumping Hanks, who had struggled to follow up Big with anything so, well, big. In the supporting role of a perpetually drunken manager (who shouts the film’s most famous line: “There’s no crying in baseball!”), Hanks reminded viewers why he’d been so beloved in the first place, thus setting up his run as the most dominant male movie star of the ’90s, which began the following year with his Oscar-winning role in Philadelphia.

But it’s Marshall who makes the movie sing. League was her first film to star a woman protagonist since her directorial debut (1986’s Jumpin Jack Flash was headed by Whoopi Goldberg). But where Jumpin Jack Flash is about a woman operating within a man’s world, League is about a tiny window of time when women could start to build their own lives and careers outside the shadows of men.

In some ways, it anticipates Marshall’s whole career, and it boasts some of the best work to date from every single actor in it. It’s a great comedy, an even better sports movie — and maybe the best thing Marshall ever made.