Why We Are Excited About Penny Marshall’s Return to Filmmaking

By  · Published on December 11th, 2014

Columbia Pictures Corporation

Like her fellow Happy Days veteran-turned-director Ron Howard, Penny Marshall makes good but not exceptional movies. Unlike Howard, she hasn’t made very many, her last at the helm being Riding in Cars With Boys, which came out 13 years ago. In the meantime, she’s done some television, behind and in front of the camera, and a decade back she produced a few films, including Howard’s Cinderella Man. Now she’s ready to return to movie directing with the biopic Effa, about baseball Hall of Famer Effa Manley, and this is something we’re pretty excited about. For those who don’t know of Manley (and I admit I didn’t before hearing of the project), she was the first woman inducted into that honorable shrine to sports greats and she did so by being the co-owner and business manager of the Negro league team the Newark Eagles in the 1930s and 1940s.

Women and baseball? Those two words should remind you of another movie that Marshall happened to also direct: A League of Their Own. We’ve shared our love for that 1992 period-set sports dramedy before, and now I’m really hoping that Effa will have a lot in common with it – besides just when it takes place and what American pastime it deals with, that is. Although Manley is an important figure in history, her movie needn’t be terribly serious. That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to see a rare great movie by Marshall, but when I think of serious biopics I think of Oscar-bait stuff, including those that don’t wind up actually Oscar-worthy like fellow baseball movie 42. A League of Their Own is the sort of movie that’s just good enough without concern for awards and other prestige. It’s part of the National Film Registry due to its cultural and historical relevance through depiction and for putting the spotlight on a significant era and what happened then, not necessarily because it’s highly revered, and that’s really all we need from a movie about Manley, too.

I probably sound like I’m doing both Marshall and Manley a disservice by dismissing their full potential as director and subject. But I think the desire and/or expectation for something to aim for or be an awards contender is worse. The truth is that A League of Their Own was discussed by critics in early 1993 for its Oscar chances, with Geena Davis and Tom Hanks named as possibilities for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor and the movie itself thought of for Best Picture (it received no nominations). But even if that was a time when awards contenders weren’t so packed to the tail end of the year (the big Oscar winner of 1992 was Unforgiven, which opened in August), Columbia Pictures clearly saw the thing as more of a box office draw than a trophy magnet, opening A League of Their Own in prime summer blockbuster territory (and the middle of baseball season) on the wednesday before the 4th of July. It was a hit, albeit one with legs, grossing more than $100m after only debuting in second place.

No need to reiterate what Scott Beggs wrote here on that movie’s positive traits five years ago, but A League of Their Own works because it’s not too heavy handed about its feminism or history or anything else. It’s an entertainment with quotable dialogue and is best remembered for its characters, as written and as performed and as directed by Marshall adequately for the story and never reaching for more. Emma Thompson and Gene Hackman can have their Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor of that year. Davis and Hanks made us laugh and stuck in our hearts. Of course, much of why we love the movie is due to the script and the casting and maybe the fact that it’s not bogged too much in the confines of a true story – as in names and events were changed. Effa will be written by someone else (the unproven Byron Motley), played by other actors (though for Marshall’s sake, she should find a role for Hanks, as he is two of her best movies) and is centered on a single, real person rather than an ensemble of originally conceived players. It also might seem to call for more of a pronounced statement on race and feminism today than A League of Their Own needed for its feminist theme more than two decades ago.

Before A League of Their Own, Marshall gave us two other very good movies, Big and Awakenings, the former certainly not a serious awards contender yet one that managed two nominations. And the latter also doesn’t seem to be trying too hard, and it received three nods anyway. Following the success of League, though, Marshall made a few movies that were a little too light and weren’t nearly as well-regarded. I feel like she’s not thought much of because of those later efforts and the fact that she hasn’t been around for a while. It’s easy to see why we might be among a small number actually excited to see her coming back. Just so long as she keeps things balanced – fun and enjoyable, but not too light, and dramatic, but not too heavy, only when that’s called for and earned rather than forced in order to create a meaningful moment. Effa can and should be a memorable movie more than a generic biopic with maybe a memorable lead performance, and if so Marshall could and should be remembered for being a good filmmaker again.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.