We have some sad news to report today as Penny Marshall, the director behind Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own, has passed away at the age of 75. According to THR, she died from complications due to diabetes.
Marshall first earned fame playing Laverne DeFazio on the Happy Days spinoff Laverne & Shirley. However, that show, which ran for eight seasons from 1976 – 1983, was before my time. I became a fan of Marshall thanks to her directing work. While she got her start by stepping into replace Howard Zieff on the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin’ Jack Flash, she made a splash with her follow up, Big. The film became the first movie ever directed by a woman to make more than $100 million at the box office.
She then moved on to direct Awakenings, which is an absolute heartbreaker of a movie. The film, based on a true story, is about catatonic people who are slowly “awakened” by a new drug administered by a visionary doctor (played by Robin Williams). It’s a beautiful, touching movie that made Marshall the second woman ever to direct a film that was nominated for Best Picture. To the Academy’s shame, Marshall was not nominated for Best Director.
Her next feature, 1992’s A League of Their Own was also a classic, and it holds up beautifully today. Again, based on true events, the story is based on a woman’s baseball league that comes together during World War II when all of the men are overseas. It’s a funny, sharp, infinitely watchable picture and my favorite of her work.
And then she kind of disappeared. She still had Renaissance Man, The Preacher’s Wife, and Riding in Cars with Boys, but honestly, with a resume that included Big, Awakening, and A League of Their Own, Marshall should have been able to write her own ticket for much longer. Part of that is the “What have you done for me lately?” nature of Hollywood, and the other part is that flops for female directors are deemed far more damaging.
But Marshall’s legacy will long outlast many of her male peers, and we’re truly grateful for the films she gifted to us. Our deepest condolences go out to her family and friends.