Penny Marshall Didn’t Mean to Become a Pioneering Female Director, She Just Did

She was the first women with a $100m+ film, and the second with a best picture nomination.

31st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards
Ron Galella

To have heard Penny Marshall tell it, her career as a groundbreaking female director was something that just kind of happened to her because people knew she would show up on time to do jobs no one else wanted. Of course, one suspects it took a lot more than happenstance and punctuality to accomplish what the late Laverne & Shirley star did once she stepped behind the camera.

After all, she directed Tom Hanks to his very first Oscar nomination with Big, not only helping to cement Hanks as one of Hollywood history’s signature leading men, but also becoming the first female director to helm a film that grossed more than $100 million. Her 1990 film Awakenings, costarring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, was the second female-directed film in history to notch an Academy Award nomination. And not only would A League of Their Own be notable for coaxing out one of Madonna’s best film performances, but according to Box Office Mojo it’s still the single best performing baseball movies of all time, as well as one of the highest grossing sports films period.

Still, despite all that, Marshall remained characteristically dismissive of her success.

“They saw I was a responsible person. I show up when I say I will show up,” she told IndieWire in 2012. “I know a lot of people, and they saw me with Whoopi (Goldberg) and saw we got along. It was by accident. And then Jim Brooks said here and gave me Big. I didn’t know everyone had turned it down.”

Of course, Marshall had the benefit of being a sitcom star before transitioning into directing. After a childhood as a dancer and a career doing guest spots and commercials, she was cast by her brother Gary Marshall, alongside Cindy Williams, as one of two ballsy working-class women who go on a date with the two main characters on a sitcom he created called Happy Days. The duo proved so popular that Marshall decided to spin them off into their own show, and Laverne & Shirley ran for eight seasons as a hit in its own right. Gary prodded his sister to take an interest in directing as well, and she proved so adept at it that she not only directed several episodes of her own show, but also moonlighted as a director for some episodes of the Jim Belushi and Michael Keaton sitcom Working Stiffs as well.

A few years after Laverne & Shirley came to an end, Hollywood suits were looking for someone to tackle the troubled film Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Taking it’s name from an old Rolling Stones hit, the comedy had originally been imagined for the Cheers star Shelley Long, but repackaged for Whoopi Goldberg as her first starring role. Howard Zieff had already been attached and dropped out as a director, and the script, about a bank employee who gets caught up with the KGB, was continuously being rewritten. No one wanted to touch the film, and eventually it was offered to Marshall, who took it mostly because her show had ended and she had little else to do. The fact that a directing career meant no time in hair and makeup also appealed to her. “Jumping Jack Flash, they hired me on a Friday and we started shooting on the Monday,” she once said.

Despite production problems, the film was a modest commercial hit, even if it never truly stood a chance with critics, no matter who had directed. Still, Marshall’s directing was notably criticized in sexist terms. “Miss Marshall directs Jumpin’ Jack Flash as if she were more worried about the decor than the effect of the performance,” wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times.

Still, Marshall had established herself as a director who could shepherd even a troubled film, and soon she found herself attached to Big, another film that had undergone some dramatic development turnover. The film was co-written by Anne Spielberg, whose brother Stephen Spielberg was originally interested in directing it with Harrison Ford as the star. He eventually dropped the project. The fact that Hollywood was developing something of a glut of magical age-switching comedies in the late ’80s had something to do with it. Like Father Like Son, 18 Again!, and Vice Versa were just some of the similarly themed films being released around the time. After considering several others, Marshall cast Hanks, who then was establishing himself as a movie star but was far from the A-lister he’d become. The rest, as they say, is history, and Big turned out to be the only age-switch comedy of the era anyone really needs to remember.

After the history-making $151.7 million gross, Marshall could write her own ticket. Awakenings netted a best-picture nominee, and A League of Their Own truly stands in a league of it’s own. Marshall also helmed The Preacher’s Wife and Riding in Cars With Boys, and would return to her TV directing roots on numerous occasions, on shows like According to Jim and United States of Tara.

Still, Marshall always downplayed her place in movie history.

“I don’t know one lens from another. That’s not my job. It’s the cinematographer’s job. But I can talk to people,” she once told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You need to see what the actors need. This one wants to be talked to privately. That one doesn’t mind if you block it for them. Just tell me the truth and I’ll adapt to it.”

In fact, she was pretty blunt about why she stopped directing as well.

“Because I don’t do horror. I don’t do vampires. I don’t do car crashes and I don’t do people in big metal suits, and that’s what sells overseas,” she told Fox. “I tell stories. So only the independents do that, and they don’t pay you that much. I’d rather do TV or an HBO movie.”

While Marshall would have preferred to consider her own career in terms of opportunities and happenstance instead of historical or feminist terms, that may be the biggest message of her career: When you actually give women a chance, they might just end up making history in the process.

Related: Hollywood Remembers Penny Marshall