Penny Marshall and the Movies That Shaped Me 


I didn’t make a habit of idolizing people when I was growing up and, as was the case with so many elements of my childhood personality, I recognized this as peculiar at the time. Not because there was any sort of soul-crushing emptiness over lacking a name I could point to as the representative of my professional ambitions or object of my teenage lust, but because it seemed like everyone else had a relatively long list in both columns. For the boys–especially the ones I didn’t get along with, by which I mean most of them–there were football players on the left and young actresses on the right. For me, doodles and scribbles in each. There was a fundamental lack of desire; one that meant nothing to me until I noticed everyone else seemed to desire so much, all of the time.

When the question of whom I admired would come up, and it often came up, I retreated to a name that ticked obvious boxes and generally satisfied the one doing the asking: Steven Spielberg! I liked movies and I liked Indiana Jones and I liked E.T., so yes, I told them: I suppose I admire Steven Spielberg. When the question of whom I had a “crush on” came up, and it often came up (horrific, the things we ask of children), I retreated to the star of one of my favorite television programs: Teri Hatcher. I liked Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, so yes, I told them: I suppose I have a crush on Teri Hatcher. Think about this for a moment. Now please never think of it again.

I’d like to say I had the self-awareness or intellectual capacity to actively seek out gay icons in my youth, that I spent evenings huddled in the library reading James Baldwin and laughing at old Rock Hudson films, but that sort of thing came later, as I assume it does with many queer kids. My heroes weren’t revealed to me until the suffocating fog of straight culture had long since lifted from my immediate worldview. Only then did I discover I’d had them all along.

When news of Penny Marshall’s death made its way to me across the various channels bad news finds us so immediately these days–a wave of group texts, push alerts, and news feed refreshes–my first thought was about A League of Their Own. Then Big. Then Garry, her brother. Then Fred Armisen, her impersonator. Then Carrie Fisher, her friend. Then, after a trip to IMDb, Jumpin Jack Flash. Oh right! Jumpin’ Jack Flash was Marshall too.

Marshall had directed a handful of episodes of her long-running Happy Days spin-off Laverne & Shirley, which went off the air in 1983, so it’s unsurprising that Jumpin’ Jack Flash, her first film, has a decidedly sitcommy feel. For star Whoopi Goldberg, it marked a whiplash-inducing follow up to The Color Purple, which had introduced her to the world just a year earlier, and also garnered her an Oscar nomination. The version I grew up watching was ripped from network television on an LP VHS, but was nearly identical to the unedited release I watched for the first time this week, save a handful of “fucks” and “shits.” It’s a harmless and mostly charming action-comedy–like Wargames meets Foul Play… but with Whoopi Goldberg!

It’s quietly groundbreaking in that way woman-led films of the era were, subverting patriarchal cinematic norms without commenting much about the reversals, almost as if everyone involved lacked the vocabulary

Goldberg plays Terry–an undervalued single banker who finds herself knee-deep in a bit of international cyber-espionage. It’s quietly groundbreaking in that way woman-led films of the era were, subverting patriarchal cinematic norms without commenting much about the reversals, almost as if everyone involved lacked the vocabulary; or, perhaps more accurately, as if they thought their audiences wouldn’t care. It was, after all, co-written by legend Nancy Meyers, who used a pseudonym for reasons I can’t put my finger on.

Seeing it again for the first time in over 20 years, I was struck by the how little the men matter (most of them are villains), and how clever Terry and the women who help her along the way, including Carol Kane, are allowed to be. Though she ultimately falls for the titular Jack, and the film fades out on their unconvincingly swooning faces, he exists only as text on a computer screen until the final scene. The romance feels like it was demanded by someone at the studio, and results in an ending that’s dangling somewhere between clunky and brave. While it may be clear that Marshall had no interest in amping up the romance between Terry and Jack, it took me a couple decades to give her inaction a second thought.

Big, Marshall’s second and most popular film, needs no introduction, and will likely not be forgotten as long as we’re still watching movies and fantasizing about room-sized floor pianos. It made Tom Hanks a star, and Marshall the first woman to direct a movie that grossed more than $100 million at the US box office. The latter is a fact I’ve known since childhood, but one that resonated exclusively due to my love for movie trivia. That Penny Marshall, a husky-voiced woman whom I laughed at on Laverne & Shirley reruns, was such a successful director was just a fun fact to keep in my file of fun facts, like how Andie MacDowell’s voice was dubbed over by a more experienced actress in Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, or that no one on the set of The Golden Girls liked working with Betty White. Yes, it was just like that.

Two years after 1990’s Awakenings, Marshall’s first true awards play that rudely received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture but not Best Director, came A League of Their Own. I cannot for the life of me think of a single piece of art more perfectly constructed to draw the attention and obsessions of an unknowing gay kid with a big sister in the ’90s than this true story about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Here was a period film (the costumes!) about nice, talented women (boys bullied me!) starring Tom Hanks (in retrospect, my first crush) Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna (help, I’m exploding) whose central story was about a sibling (Lori Petty, in a role that accidentally taught me about camp) who looked up to her loyal, tough-love spewing sister (Thelma/Geena Davis) and contained not one but two sing-along scenes (bust out “batttter upppppp” in a gay bar and see what happens).

That I played and hated little league baseball at the time only added to its appeal, as it provided me and the sports lover with common ground. Everyone liked that movie, even the people who didn’t necessarily like me, and behind the whole operation was Marshall, who started pitching the film after “viewing the 1987 documentary about the AAGPBL titled ‘A League of their Own’ on television.” It was her talent and persistence that led to one of the best and most beloved all-star, jubilantly overlong, crowd-pleasing broad comedies of the 1990s.

None of this, unfortunately, was top of mind when watching and rewatching these three crucial movies from my youth at the time. That she directed these films was all but a footnote, a tiny piece of trivia. But just as the effects of the past on one’s present can take a lifetime to become clear, so has the level of Marshall’s influence on my everything, and it’s comforting to recognize that sort of realization as retroactive; something that can be washed over memories, adjusting their tracking to reveal a lineup of people like Marshall who were shaping my personality and sense of humor from the margins.

Art sometimes gets tangled up inside your DNA without you noticing

I didn’t have a poster of Marshall on the wall and I didn’t really get to know her until reading My Mother Was Nuts in 2012 (as well as her best friend Carrie Fisher’s fantastic The Princess Diarist some four years later), but looking back I see that her work actually contains pieces of myself–or maybe vice versa. Art sometimes gets tangled up inside your DNA without you noticing. Without Jumpin’ Jack Flash, without Big, without A League of Their Own, or more importantly, without Penny, would I even exist?

In some form, of course, but not the one who smiles at a stray memory of Madonna teaching Shirley Baker to read or who thinks of not one but two Whoopi Goldberg comedies when “Rescue Me” plays overhead while browsing the canned food aisle. So ask me who my heroes were. I’m finally starting to figure out the answers.

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