Saturday Night Spotlight #3: Penny Marshall

Today I focus the spotlight on Penny Marshall (b. 1943), the first female director to direct a film that broke the $100 million barrier at the American box office. Marshall transitioned from being the popular star of the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” to being one of the profitable directors in Hollywood for a while. She has not directed any feature films since Riding in Cars with Boys (2001), but all of her films have had long shelf lives (especially with the benefit of cable TV channels) thanks to sensitive direction, good scripts and actors capable of adding dimension to their characters. Marshall has an eye for talent and she has a talent of her own for directing entertaining stories.

Big (1988) – This is the film that so notably grossed over $100 million and it did so for good reason. Tom Hanks is wonderfully appealing as Josh Baskin, a character first played by a preteen actor and then by Hanks after a wish to “be big” turns Josh into a 30-year-old man. Hanks plays Josh with the delightful spirit of a child, a totally believable and loveable performance that earned him first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and which won him a Golden Globe for Best Actor (Comedy/Musical). The film also received an Oscar nomination for its original screenplay, which is both funny and poignant. Big is definitely a film with heart and soul.

Awakenings (1990) – Few films of the 1990s are as profoundly moving as this story of a doctor (Robin Williams in one of his finest dramatic roles) who tries to cure encephalitis patients with the drug L-dopa in 1969. Robert De Niro, who also gives an excellent performance, plays Williams’ main patient. Awakenings deservedly received Oscar nominations for De Niro’s lead performance, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, but it should be said that the entire ensemble, which includes Julie Kavner, Ruth Nelson, John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, Alice Drummond, Judith Malina, Barton Heyman, George Martin, Anne Meara, Richard Libertini, Dexter Gordon, Max von Sydow and Peter Stormare, is top-notch. By the film’s end you will have shed a noticeable amount of tears (if you are anything like me and you’re vulnerable to tearjerkers, that is), but it is worth it to experience such an affecting tale about what it means to care about other people.

A League of Their Own (1992) – Ladies headline this inspiring 1940s-set comedy about the first women’s baseball team to be part of a professional league. The main focus of the group is a pair of sisters played by Geena Davis and Lori Petty; other members of the team are played by Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Tracy Reiner (Penny Marshall’s daughter), Bitty Schram and Téa Leoni. The huge cast also features David Strathairn, Garry Marshall (Penny Marshall’s older brother and a famous director in his own right), Jon Lovitz, Bill Pullman, Harry Shearer and Rae Allen. The team’s lousy, slovenly manager is played by Tom Hanks, a total turnaround from his Big character. Although Hanks has star power, Davis does too (she was already an Academy Award winner for 1988’s The Accidental Tourist and she was Thelma in 1991’s Thelma & Louise), so ultimately the film’s focus is on women and their accomplishments in a male-dominated sport.

The Preacher’s Wife (1996) – This is a remake of the classic holiday film The Bishop’s Wife (1947), updated from the original Hollywood version with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven to star Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance. Marshall’s film combines the elements of romance and fantasy to create a charming film just as family-friendly as its predecessor. Hans Zimmer’s score was nominated for an Academy Award, but the music that’s most memorable is Whitney Houston’s cover of the Four Tops’ song “I Believe in You and Me.” Since 1996 the song has been associated with Houston as much as – or perhaps more than – with the Four Tops. This is further evidence of Penny Marshall’s impact on the film world and the world at large: sounds and images that stay with the viewer.

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