See It Instead: Penny Marshall Edition.
Actress and Director Penny Marshall passed away recently, so we salute our favorite movies from her impressive career.
Penny Marshall became a national sweet-heart for her many comedic television roles, but she really shone as a masterful force behind the camera. Over several decades, she crafted many famous films and opened opportunities for other women in the industry. While her best known efforts were comedies, she also created powerful dramatic films as well. Sadly, we lost her talent and vision last week. Fortunately, we can celebrate her achievements by looking back at several of her excellent films.
Penny Marshall (10/15/1943 – 12/17/2018)
Carole Penny Marshall was born in the Bronx, New York City, to a family with show business in their bones. Her mother was a dancer and instructor and her father was a producer and director of industrial films. Her brother Garry Marshall went on to have a long and prodigious career in television, and helped to introduce Penny to the industry. Penny Marshall studied and taught dance under her mother as a young woman, studied psychology and mathematics in college, and joined her brother in show business after the end of her first marriage.
Marshall’s big break came as playing the affable Laverne DeFazio opposite Cindy Williams’ long suffering Shirley Feeney. From a cameo on Happy Days to a stand-alone series, Laverne & Shirley became a television staple, airing for seven years and 178 episodes. During this run, Marshall began to take on directorial duties, paving the way for a directing career studded with commercial and critical hits. Marshall broke boundaries for female directors, becoming the first woman to gross 100 million dollars at the box office with her comedy hit: Big.
After a successful battle against lung cancer, Penny Marshall wrote a well received memoir about growing up in a family of entertainers and her legacy as an actress and director. She passed away at the age of 75 in 2018 following complications arising from diabetes. She is survived by her daughter, Tracy Reiner, who is also a celebrated actress.
The Serious Pick: Awakenings (1990)
A doctor (Robin Williams) frustrated by a lack of care for several catatonic patients abandoned in a Bronx hospital champions an experimental procedure to cure them. One promising patient (Robert De Niro) is given the new drug and awakens fully. He bonds with the doctor and dives into restarting his life, but problems begin to pop up. It appears the cure was temporary and while the patient resolutely attempts to make the most of his time, his doctor can only watch in anguish as he begins to relapse.
Awakenings is a powerful film with a tremendous cast and some eye-opening performances. De Niro, used to being seen as a tough guy, plays the vulnerable and quirky Leonard Lowe with aplomb, and Robin Williams’ portrayal of Dr. Sayer cements his reputation, post Dead Poets Society as more than just a wild-eyed funny man. Marshall also broke against expectations by crafting a richly nuanced and emotional film after having succeeded with mostly comedic films. It’s a great film and based on a remarkable true story.
The Lighthearted Pick 1: Big (1988)
Josh is tired of being a kid. Unable to do all the “cool” stuff adults can, he makes a wish to be Big…and it comes true. Unrecognizable to his family and friends as a 30 year old man (Tom Hanks) he runs away to New York where he lands a small-time job in a toy company. His fresh and childish perspective catches on, and soon he’s a big wheel at the company, but it turns out being Big is not all its cracked up to be for a guy who’s really just 12 years old.
Big is an iconic film, from back in the good old days when Tom Hanks was a goofy comedian instead of an Oscar-producing factory. Explaining why this film is as beloved as it is feels like explaining why peanut butter and jelly works as a sandwich. Marshall got the best of both worlds from her script and cast, playing to childish fantasies and silly gags, but also exploring the bitter-sweet experience of growing up and missing your childhood.
The Lighthearted Pick 2: A League of Their Own (1992)
When World War 2 and the massive deployment of men 18-30 threatens to shut down America’s pastime, a shameless businessman sees potential in an all-women’s baseball league promoting his products. Looking for star power, he sends out former all-star Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) to find the talent. Dugan finds two sisters, Kit (Lori Petty) and Dottie (Geena Davis), who fit the bill playing ball in a small Midwest town. Around their energy, a team with a chance at a championship forms. Sibling rivalry between Kit and Dottie, Dugan’s growing bitterness over being too old and injured to join the war effort, and the tragedies of the world-wide conflict threaten to derail the all-women’s league before it can celebrate its first World Series.
Marshall teams back up with Hanks to great effect. Hanks plays against type as the gruff and unsympathetic Dugan, and Geena Davis steals the show with her poise and formidable demeanor. In a film about how female players could match or surpass their male counterparts if given a chance, it’s fitting that it’s the all-star actress ensemble that shines as the high-point of the film. It’s a smart comedy, a rousing sports film, and a deft bit of cultural commentary all roled up into one.
The Unconventional Pick: Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)
Terry (Whoopi Goldberg) works at a bank where management is always on her back. One day she receives an odd message on her computer from a person claiming to be “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, an imperiled British spy who needs her help. Despite skepticism, Terry follows some of Jack’s clues, discovering that there is indeed a KGB plot underway and that Jack may very well be who he says he is. The only problem that remains is solving all of Jack’s cryptic instructions to alert the CIA before the Russian spies get to him first.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash is not a great movie, but it is one of the first adult comedies I recall loving as a kid. The spy caper is elaborate enough to make solving all of Jack’s puzzles entertaining, and Whoopi keeps up a rapid fire patter of snarky and funny dialogue as she jumps from the frying pan to the fire over and over again. While many critics felt the spy stuff was canned and clichéd, I thought Jumpin’ Jack Flash used computers (still bleeding edge cool at this point, in all of their boxy, green-and-black screen glory) in way that was novel and exciting. What if the 50lb brick of an IBM in my parent’s office was A SECRET GATEWAY TO SPIES AND ADVENTURE?! I was hooked as a kid, and I still look back fondly on Penny Marshall’s first film as a director.