“I led an oddly charmed life for someone who thought she was not a charming person.”
Penny Marshall said that at one point in recent years, according to The Daily News in its obituary for the actress and director. Marshall died Monday night at age 75 of complications from diabetes, leaving behind a legacy that colors that self-assessment with a certain bittersweetness. It’s impossible to look back on her trailblazing success and signature talent and not see how much of it is owed to immense amounts of charm.
The fact that it exploded out of a woman known for her gruff speaking voice and a quiet wryness is what made it all the more rewarding.
It’s the unfortunate thing that happens when an artist passes away. You survey their accomplishments with a sudden clarity that exposes how the person may not have gotten the credit they were owed when they were alive. That’s arguably the case with Penny Marshall.
As a performer, she’s best known for her work on Laverne and Shirley, a ratings bonanza that starred two wise-cracking women as the hilarious co-leads—something that would be monumental still if it happened today, let alone 40 years ago. Laverne, in the spirit of characters played by Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper at the time, exploded the terms by which women were allowed to be funny on TV. She was a nut. A kook. Not conventionally attractive, not beholden to a man, not particularly warm. She was recognizable. More, she was hysterical.
When actresses and critics working today talk about the female comic actors who paved the way, names like Moore’s and Harper’s and Betty White and Carol Burnett are mentioned. But Marshall’s, for as beloved as her sitcom was, rarely is. Maybe it’s because of her unassuming nature or that aforementioned humility with which she cultivated her chops. She was daffy, recognizable, and brilliant. I see her all over today’s best TV weirdos.
Given what a success Laverne and Shirley was, it’s remarkable that it’s her directing career in which Marshall leaves her biggest mark.
Penny Marshall was the first female director to helm a movie that made $100 million.
That’s a major stat.
Did you know that? Do many people know that? I didn’t until I began reading obituaries today, and I work in a field where I’m supposed to know things like that. Penny Marshall completely changed the game.
That $100 million film was Big, the Tom Hanks star vehicle that scored the actor his first Oscar nomination. It actually grossed over $150 million in 1988, which would translate to more than $320 million today, after inflation. Four years later, she directed A League of Their Own, starring Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, and Hanks, about the country’s first female baseball league. It crossed $100 million, too.
Money is one thing, though. Just as remarkable is how, well, perfect those respective movies are.
Big is the singular example of what all blockbuster comedies since aspire to capture, a nimble mix of gravity and silliness with human performances and memorable set pieces—in this case, the FAO Schwartz piano scene—working in equal measure. A League of Their Own is a triumph of feminist storytelling that never once feels gendered, political, or preachy. How marvelous is it that the best sports movie ever was directed by a woman about female athletes?
We’d venture that they are two of the most re-watchable films of all time.
Her track record as a director is impressive. She made her debut directing Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Her follow-up to Big was 1991’s Awakenings, which scored a Best Picture nomination. Speaking from a purely personal standpoint, her 1996 film The Preacher’s Wife is one of the few modern holiday movies to warrant annual winter screenings, which it does each year at the Fallon household. Whitney Houston’s star power radiates out of each frame in the film. Her chemistry with Denzel Washington is crackling, and Marshall is astute enough as a director to point the camera and let that sing.
She’s an interesting case study in how Hollywood treats and gives opportunity to female directors, a conversation that, more than three decades after her big-screen directorial debut, still dominates the industry.
Marshall had a somewhat complicated relationship to the conversation over Hollywood’s lack of female directors. “They asked me—I didn’t knock on their door,” she told Reuters in 2012, alluding to the fact that she landed in the director’s chair for the first time because Whoopi Goldberg recruited her for the film. But she’s also an example of the industry’s double standard when it comes to gender: a female director is far more likely to land herself in “movie jail” after one misstep.
As director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) once explained, “If a woman makes a mistake, people remember it. If a man makes a mistake, more often than not, people forget it.”
Mimi Leder, who, in addition directed the upcoming Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic On the Basis of Sex and was one of the most successful directors of the ’90s with The Peacemaker and Deep Impact, described her own experience with the phenomenon after her film Pay It Forward underperformed.
“The experience of going to Movie Jail was deafening and painful,” she told The Ringer last year.
“I didn’t get a movie until seven years later. I was offered lousy movies, but the point is, I know men who have made $250 million failures and they get three more films,” she said. “Maybe it’s as simple as, ‘Hey, you look like me! You’re a white guy, you wear a baseball hat, come on in. Come join the club.’ I think there’s a safety [to that]. It’s insanity, but it still exists. Look at the numbers, still. … It’s certainly not because we [women] are less talented, or don’t have the ability to make big films, small films—all sizes. It’s obviously not true that we don’t work as hard.”
It’s not clear if that’s exactly what happened after Marshall’s last feature, 2001’s Riding in Cars With Boys, flopped both critically and commercially. But Marshall did not retire after that, logging time behind the camera directing episode of TV shows According to Jim and United States of Tara.
It’s a disservice to the mark she made on pop culture with her previous films and the potential for what could have come next that she never directed another feature. And it’s yet another vital, if depressing, lesson about the injustices facing women in Hollywood—even women as strong and as groundbreaking as Marshall.
Especially in her later years, there’s an image we all have Penny Marshall, her glasses halfway down the bridge of her nose, her head tilted and her eyes peering up over the frames, a wily gaze and a sly smirk on her face. It’s a look that telegraphed so many things, like she has an amazing secret she’s keeping, or that she’s winding up to deliver a riotous dead-pan wisecrack. Maybe she was taking you in. Maybe she was appreciating you. Maybe she was about to share something that was going to rock your world.
We’re just grateful for all the times that she did.