Critic's Notebook: Penny Marshall, From Sitcom Clown to Versatile Filmmaker

After emerging as a latter-day Lucille Ball on 'Laverne & Shirley,' Marshall moved into directing with the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle 'Jumpin' Jack Flash,' then scored back-to-back hits with 'Big,' 'Awakenings' and 'A League of Their Own.'

"Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!"

Who would have guessed that the actress known to millions of American TV viewers for that nonsensical Yiddish intro would go on to play a groundbreaking role at a time when women directors were still a rarity in Hollywood? But Penny Marshall's career should be remembered for more than its statistical importance. Having demonstrated her comic chops in front of the camera, Marshall showed great skill navigating different genres once she moved behind it.

Her brother, Garry Marshall, of course helped launch her career by casting her as Laverne DeFazio on Happy Days and its spinoff series, Laverne & Shirley, which became a smash in its own right, pairing her with Cindy Williams as roommates and co-workers at a 1950s Milwaukee brewery.

But she was not content to remain identified with the blue-collar tough girl she immortalized in that long-running sitcom. At the time when she directed her first feature, 1986's Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Marshall was following in the footsteps of a few other actress-directors, including Elaine May and Barbra Streisand (who had made her directorial debut three years earlier). Streisand hedged her bets by casting herself in her movies, but Marshall followed the example of May, who after her first film (A New Leaf) stayed behind the camera.

Marshall’s second feature, the magical age-switching fantasy comedy Big — a smash for Tom Hanks, featuring his first Oscar-nominated performance — was also a milestone in that it was the first film helmed by a woman to gross more than $100 million. She capitalized on that success to direct two even better movies, the medical drama Awakenings (nominated for the best picture Oscar of 1990), based on Oliver Sacks' memoir about a revolutionary treatment used to revive catatonic patients; and A League of Their Own, a memorable fictionalized story of an underdog team inspired by the early days of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II.

When Pauline Kael reviewed Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid in 1972, she wrote, “She scores a first… No American woman has ever before directed her daughter [Jeannie Berlin] in a leading role.” Marshall became the second when she directed Tracy Reiner in A League of Their Own, casting her alongside Hanks, Geena Davis, Rosie O'Donnell, Lori Petty and Madonna.

I interviewed both mother and daughter around that time. Marshall’s pride in her daughter was clear, and Reiner’s rapport with her mother was equally evident. The casting should not be interpreted as another example of Hollywood nepotism, but rather as recognition on Marshall’s part that women in Hollywood have often needed a helping hand, as well as a supportive environment on movie sets, which could often be intimidating.

Marshall demonstrated impressive range in her first few films. She handled the thriller elements in Jumpin’ Jack Flash skillfully, while also providing a comic showcase for her star, Whoopi Goldberg, for whom the feature was a follow-up to her big-screen debut in The Color Purple. Big and A League of Their Own may have been primarily comedies, but they also had poignant moments that Marshall highlighted deftly and unobtrusively.

Awakenings was quite a different kind of achievement — a powerful drama written by Oscar winner Steven Zaillian. Robert De Niro earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of one of the "awakened" patients, but the great performance in that movie was by Robin Williams as the doctor overseeing the experiments.

It has often been true that showy performances like De Niro’s are rewarded over more subtle turns like the one Williams delivered in Awakenings. Williams, of course, was no stranger to showboating, so I have to give Marshall a good deal of the credit for encouraging him to perform with restraint and understated delicacy. The two had worked together as performers on Mork & Mindy; that may be one reason why Marshall had an understanding of how to coax unexpected, tender dimensions from the comedy master's portrayal of the painfully shy doctor.

After A League of Their Own, Marshall’s films were less successful, though she got to work with several prominent actors, including Danny DeVito in Renaissance Man, Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in The Preacher’s Wife and Drew Barrymore in Riding in Cars With Boys.

But those later scripts weren’t up to the level of Big or Awakenings or A League of Their Own, which just goes to confirm that a director for the most part is only as good as his or her material.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that male directors generally are allowed many more failures than women working behind the camera. Marshall was not given the opportunity to helm another feature after 2001's Riding in Cars. We can only hope that the tide has turned for female directors. If that is the case, younger women filmmakers owe a debt to the pioneering work of Penny Marshall.