Penny Marshall’s ‘A League of Their Own’ Is the Best Baseball Movie Ever
Although it’s the greatest of all sports, baseball has not been the inspiration for many great films. America’s pastime is often criticized for being overly slow, not very action-heavy, and plodding, none of which are adjectives you want to use when describing a movie. Most of the best baseball films arrived a few decades ago — though the 2011 Best Picture nominee Moneyball is a fascinating look at the more analytical side of the sport’s modern era — and the best-ever baseball movie is perhaps the most unlikely of all: Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own.
Marshall, who passed away yesterday at age 75, didn’t direct that many movies — only seven, with her last credit being the 2001 drama Riding in Cars with Boys. Though the 1992 film A League of Their Own was the only sports-related credit to her name, it came at the tail end of a four-year period of massive success, following up on Big and the Oscar-nominated Awakenings. Inspired by the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, A League of Their Own isn’t just Marshall’s best film. Like other great sports movies, it’s as much about the people playing the game as it is about the game itself, as Marshall and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel crafted a sibling rivalry as thrilling as the most intense World Series game.
In 1943, sisters Dottie and Kit (Geena Davis and Lori Petty) live in Oregon, and live to play ball. That makes them perfect candidates to join the AAGPBL, a kinda/sorta publicity stunt meant to tide over baseball fans while male players fought in the war. After a rigorous audition at Wrigley Field, both Dottie and Kit are picked to join the Rockford Peaches, overseen by ex-ballplayer Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), who’s far more excited by the nearest bottle of booze than by coaching a group of young women. (It doesn’t help that one of his players even brings along her obnoxious son as the team tours the country.)
Dottie and Kit’s personal baggage threatens to take over the already eventful season, especially after Kit is traded to Rockford’s rival team. Will the two face off in the final game? Will Dottie and Kit have a showdown at the very last minute in the game? Is the Major League Baseball limit on mound visits ridiculous? (Apologies for the baseball reference, but the answer to all three is a resounding yes.)
The late 1980s and 1990s were a boom period for baseball in film, with everything from the family-friendly (and still funny) Rookie of the Year to The Sandlot to two of Kevin Costner’s best films, Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. Where A League of Their Own excels compared to these other films is not always in its fervent embrace of the game, as much as in its snappy humor and the cast working to sell every single joke. Marshall, Ganz, and Mandel all got their big breaks in the era of 70s multi-camera TV shows like Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days; certainly, some of the humor has the flavor of a sitcom, but is always elevated by the very game (sorry) ensemble.
The ensemble is the true MVP of the movie. Jon Lovitz kicks things off with a glorified cameo as a talent scout who first discovers Dottie and Kit. The scout’s an urban type who can barely stand being in the rural part of Oregon; when a cow moos at him, he all but shouts, “Will you shut up?!” His Ernie is meant to be lovably grouchy, a careful balance to strike that Lovitz does easily, even when rattling off gleefully condescending lines like, “Hey, cowgirls, see the grass? Don’t eat it.” Lovitz leaves the picture after he drops off Dottie and Kit at Wrigley, but for those few scenes, he steals it. (Again, sorry.)
And then, of course, there’s Tom Hanks, who these days doesn’t do much in the way of comedy. But A League of Their Own is a wonderful reminder that, when he wanted to, Hanks would do almost anything for a laugh. Everyone remembers his famous line “There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!” The entire exchange featuring that dialogue, between him and the tearful player Evelyn (Bitty Schram), is still hilarious, in no small part because the meeker Schram gets, the more infuriated Hanks becomes. It’s by no means a cruel performance or character, but Hanks makes every moment he gets — in a film where he’s the supporting player whose opening scene consists of him peeing for about a minute — brilliant.
But, of course, the core of the film is the players, portrayed by, among others, Davis, Petty, Schram, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell — who play a kind of odd-couple pair, hearkening back to, yes, Laverne and Shirley. Madonna’s character, Mae Mordabito, is a bit one-note, but it’s a note the singer/actress is ideally cast to play, a woman who uses her feminine wiles to throw off men with her own fierce personality. And O’Donnell (in her film debut!) is mostly there for a lot of wisecracks, but she sells every one of them.
Both Geena Davis and Lori Petty are called upon to represent the emotional side of things, and it’s hard to envision better actresses for the task. As Kit, Petty is the textbook definition of the bratty kid sister with a chip on her shoulder, and Davis is equally perfect for the part of someone who seems like she’s got everything together despite some emotional hardships of her own. (Seeing as the film is set during WWII, it’s no surprise that Dottie’s husband, played by Bill Pullman, is fighting overseas.) The way the film builds to the finale — in which the last game of the season comes down to the bottom of the ninth inning, and Kit is the last batter and she chooses to leg out a hit for an attempted inside-the-park home-run and with her sister as the catcher, the two have a literal collision at home plate — is both entirely predictable and wholly satisfying.
This is the magic of A League of Their Own. It’s a familiar story, but told exceptionally well. At her best, this is what Penny Marshall accomplished as a director; few directors were better at turning high-concept ideas into huge entertainments, or drawing unforgettable comic performances out of actors. (Speaking of Hanks, his work in Marshall’s Big made him a movie star.) A League of Their Own is, in a lot of ways, like baseball itself: it’s reliably old-fashioned, it’s exciting, it’s full of thrills, and it’s always charming.
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