Remembering Penny Marshall

On Film / The Daily — Dec 19, 2018
Penny Marshall and Whoopi Goldberg on the set of Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)

Even if we’d only ever known her as Laverne DeFazio, the brasher of two friends who shared a basement apartment and worked side by side in a Milwaukee brewery in the hit sitcom Laverne & Shirley, we’d be mourning the loss of Penny Marshall and her singular talent for blending comedy with, as she often put it, “heart.” But Marshall, who passed away on Monday at the age of seventy-five, would go on to write, produce, and direct, delivering a trifecta of critical and box office hits with Big (1988), Awakenings (1990), and A League of Their Own (1992). Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that Marshall “helped create for women in Hollywood the very model of a modern multi-hyphenate.”

Marshall grew up in a show business family in the Bronx, and her brother, Garry, who began writing jokes for talk show hosts Joey Bishop and Jack Paar in the early 1960s, forged a career creating hit sitcoms in the 1970s. His first big success, cocreated with Jerry Belson, was The Odd Couple, based on Neil Simon’s play. In 1971, Garry got Penny a recurring role as a secretary, and as Anita Gates points out in the New York Times, while it was her first big break, “nepotism had nothing to do with it when viewers fell in love with her poker-faced humor and Bronx-accented whine.” That voice was, as “reviewers always noted, nasal and boisterous,” adds James Poniewozik in the NYT, “but it could also be wheedling, teasing, sarcastic or playful. Marshall played a whole repertoire on that brass instrument.”

Garry Marshall created his next hit, Happy Days, as well as its spin-off, Laverne & Shirley, on his own. For Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, Laverne and Shirley (Cindy Williams), “who would dance and laugh and play practical jokes on one another, were the kind of almost-grownups you dreamed of being . . . They made underachieving look awesome.” Premiering in January 1976, Laverne & Shirley became the most-watched show in America by its third season, but ratings tapered off with the fifth season, and after eight seasons in all, the show was canceled in 1983.

Marshall had directed four episodes of Laverne & Shirley and other shows as well when, in 1986, Whoopi Goldberg asked her to replace Howard Zieff as the director of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, a comedy about a bank employee who stumbles into a convoluted web of international espionage. As Peter Sobczynski points out at RogerEbert.com, with the exception of Aretha Franklin’s cover of the titular tune and “a game cast of comics” including Jim Belushi, Carol Kane, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Tracey Ullman, and Michael McKean, the movie is “not especially memorable.”

But Big would be. Starring Tom Hanks as a thirty-year-old incarnation of a twelve-year-old boy who’s taken by surprise when his wish to become an adult is granted by an antique fortune teller machine at a carnival, Big became the first film directed by a woman to earn over 100 million dollars. Revisiting Big this summer on the occasion of its thirtieth anniversary, Jason Bailey, writing for Vulture, noted that the ’80s were littered with body swap comedies in which the soul of a grown man is just a boy. Though Big is as packed with gags and laugh-lines as the other films, what sets it apart are moments such as the night that Hanks’s Josh finds himself alone in a rundown Times Square hotel and “curls up on the ratty mattress, overcome by the sounds of shouting in the hallway and shooting on the street, and he sobs . . . It’s a heavy scene. And it’s a scene that deals with the implications of this improbable scenario in a way the other films don’t.”

In Awakenings, Robin Williams, whose career was launched by another Happy Days spin-off, Mork & Mindy, plays Malcolm Sayer, a character based real-life neurologist Oliver Sacks, who discovers that the drug L-Dopa might be an effective treatment for patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica, also known as sleeping sickness. He focuses on one patient played by Robert De Niro (who, by the way, had considered taking the lead in Big before choosing Martin Brest’s Midnight Run instead). As Matt Zoller Seitz observes at Vulture, the success of Awakenings, both critically and financially, was proof that both actors as well as Marshall herself “could move beyond their established comfort zones. It’s thought of as another warm and embracing ‘feel-good’ movie, but it’s really not. It’s a story without a happy ending; the inspiring reversal of fortune at the heart of the tale can’t last forever,” and Awakenings “eventually becomes a film about appreciating what you have at the moment that you have it, a subject that Marshall seemingly understood on a deep level.”

In 1987, Marshall caught a documentary about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, formed during the Second World War when many male players were fighting overseas, and set A League of Their Own in motion. The film would reunite her with Tom Hanks and Jon Lovitz and feature winning turns from Geena Davis, Megan Cavanagh, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna. “The film is a classic now,” writes NPR’s Linda Holmes, “but it wasn't an obvious slam-dunk at the time. It wasn’t just a movie with an ensemble cast of women; it was a movie with an ensemble cast of women playing sports. It shows Hanks, who was only two years removed from the debacle of Bonfire of the Vanities and hadn’t had a hit since, as an angry, often unlikable alcoholic, which wasn’t necessarily his brand. But what they made—what Marshall directed—is one of those films that are powerfully imprinted on a lot of their devotees.”

League was another 100 million dollar–plus hit, and like many, Alan Sepinwall, writing for Rolling Stone, finds that it still “works on nearly every level: underdog sports movie, lovingly-recreated period piece, feminist drama, buddy comedy, etc.” Marshall “even stages a raucous musical number, with Madonna and [Eddie] Mecca swinging at a roadside bar.” None of the films that followed—Renaissance Man (1994), with Danny DeVito and Mark Wahlberg in his first feature; The Preacher’s Wife (1996), a remake of The Bishop’s Wife (1947) with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston; and Riding in Cars With Boys (2001) with Drew Barrymore as a teen mother—would score as well with either critics or audiences.

Marshall remained in demand, though, as a director of television shows such as United States of Tara, starring Toni Colette, and as a guest star on, for example, Portlandia, the sketch comedy series created by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, who, it should be mentioned, does a mean (in a good way) impression of Penny Marshall. In 2010, Marshall directed a pilot for HBO, Women Without Men, about a group of friends whose marriages and careers are behind them. The show, which was never picked up, starred Marshall, Lorraine Bracco, Dyan Cannon, Carlene Watkins, Colleen Kamp, and playing herself, Rosanne Barr. Ekkehard Knörer points us to a six-and-a-half-minute sampling, and if you’re at work, you might want to put on your headphones before you watch it. By this point, Marshall was in her late sixties, and her humor was toughening up. The NYT’s Anita Gates quotes a passage from Marshall’s 2012 memoir, My Mother Was Nuts, in which she recalls “growing up with parents who hated each other, two marriages and divorces, the ups and downs of various relationships, raising a daughter and watching friends crack up and overdose. There was the cancer thing, too. As you can see, though, there’s nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that most people don’t go through, nothing that says, ‘Penny, you were lucky to get through that one.’”

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