Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 29, 2004)
A League Of Their Own pulls off one of the most difficult tricks in filmmaking. While it clearly falls into the category of stereotypical "chick flick," it nonetheless manages to be a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying film for the males in the audience - even for a raging he-man such as myself!
Much of the credit for this accomplishment falls at the feet of director Penny Marshall. She ably transferred all the lessons she learned in front of the camera as a fine comedic actress in fare such as Laverne and Shirley and The Odd Couple to her work as a director. Here and in Big, Marshall displays a skill for maneuvering through scenes both comic and dramatic with a deftness that many directors lack.
A League Of Their Own follows the standard route most sports films take in that we observe our team through a season that inevitably builds toward a championship game. One difference between this film and many relates to the fact that when we finally get to that "big game," we donít feel completely sure for whom we should cheer.
That's because the film's main storyline involves the sibling rivalry between naturally successful Dottie (Geena Davis) and younger sister Kit (Lori Petty), who struggles to escape from Dottie's shadow. (Not easy, considering Davis is about 17 feet tall!) Tensions between the two simmer and eventually boil during the course of the movie, and though they spend much of the season as teammates, Dottie inadvertently gets Kit traded to another team right before the World Series. (Naturally, the other team is their Rockford Peaches' rival for the championship.)
Normally, of course, we would root for the Peaches. Since Kit's now on the other side, however, this makes our choice more complex. In the end, the film manages to have its cake and eat it too; only one team can win, of course, but the conclusion works in such a way that the audience feels content with the ending.
Again, this finale to the season not only could have failed but probably should have failed; any time a film seeks to placate all sides of an issue, it usually bombs. This situation works because Marshall makes it work; she maintains the scene with a light enough touch that the entire circumstance seems natural.
I canít overstate the subtlety with which Marshall directs most of this film. As a "woman's film," A League Of Their Own stood a terrific chance of falling into many of the traps that befall a lot of films from the genre. Many of those movies really telegraph their emotions, and the characters really tend to wallow in melodrama. That doesnít occur here. Although the theme that it's hard for a woman to make it in a man's world certainly persists throughout the film, and each main character gets a scene in which she tells her little side of that struggle, these bits are brief and well integrated into the action. As such, we learn that Doris (Rosie O'Donnell) has a bum of a boyfriend back home, but clearly her self-esteem has now risen to the point that she's willing to forget about him. This segment takes about two minutes of screen time, it tells us all the backstory about Doris that we really need to know, and it completely avoids the mawkishness and self-pity into which most movies would descend.
Marshall also escapes that trap in regard to the sibling rivalry theme that runs through the film. It presents a refreshing lack of touchy feely scenes in which the sisters "explore their feelings" and try to accommodate each other. We clearly understand both of their perspectives, and we can also empathize with both characters. Dottie's clearly unwilling to roll over so Kit can artificially succeed, and although she may maintain a bit too high a level of intensity - Dottie's definitely ultra-competitive - she maintains the proper attitude; success should be earned, not given. Geena Davis grounds
Dottie with a high level of pragmatism and determination, and she never comes off as nasty or petty, both of which became dangers for that role.
Still, we also clearly feel for Kit, since virtually everyone knows what it's like to be stuck in the shadow of someone more skilled than themselves. Lori Petty plays Kit with enough determination and grit that although her character definitely could have seemed like a simpering crybaby, she never falls into that trap.
Really, the only elements of this film I found unnecessary and overly sentimental were the contemporary bits that frame the movie. For a few minutes at both the beginning and ending of A League Of Their Own, we witness modern-day Dottie as she goes to a reunion of female ballplayers that takes place at the Hall of Fame. The meat of the film actually comes as a flashback in which elderly Dottie reminisces about those long-ago days. While the present-day bits didnít seem bad, I simply think that they we didnít need them. They prolong the film without much reason and they add little to the movie's emotional impact; sometimes it's fun to see what happened to the characters in later years, but nothing here tells us much of interest.
The thoroughly top-level cast combines with Marshall's succinct direction to make A League Of Their Own a winner. In addition to Davis and Petty in the lead roles, Tom Hanks does some of his best work as bitter drunken ex-ballplayer Jimmy Dugan. In a role loosely based on real big leaguer Hack Wilson, Hanks provides many of the film's comic sparks, but he doesn't allow his character to degenerate to the level of simple clown. Hanks manages to convey the lost pride inherent in his fallen hero, and we truly believe and accept the growth the character displays.
I admit I'm pretty much in the bag for Hanks, as I've been back since the days of Bosom Buddies. Nonetheless, I liked him more in A League Of Their Own than I have at any other time except for Big. Is it a coincidence that Penny Marshall directed both of these films? I doubt it. For whatever reason, these two seem to spark the best in each other.
Also memorable is Madonna, who makes a rare appearance in an actual good movie. I'm also very much in the bag for Madonna, but only as a musician, not as an actress. With rare exceptions, her film work has been dreck. Those exceptions seem to occur only a) when she works in comedic roles; and b) when she's there only as a supporting actress, not as the star. A League Of Their Own clearly matches those criteria. It's tempting to add that Madonna also needs roles that don't stray far from her personal image, since her best-realized pieces tend to stay pretty close to home. However, that's not the case; acting as a sexually provocative character in Body of Evidence sure didn't help.
I used to be in the bag for Rosie O'Donnell before she got her baby and her TV show and then turned mean once the latter ended. At least I have movies like this where I can watch her and remember how much fun she used to be. I did find it strange that the film makes much of teammate Marla's (Megan Cavanagh) extreme unattractiveness, since the folks behind the scenes at the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League wanted only hotties to play, but little mention is made of how inappropriate Rosie looks in these surroundings. It makes sense from a film point of view not to dwell on that issue - expanding on the relative ugliness of two players would have been too much - but it lacks logic in the real world.
That and a few other minor quibbles aside, A League Of Their Own works tremendously well as both comedic and dramatic fare. Itís a movie that both men and women can enjoy and it seems like a very successful offering.