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VEB Movie Club: A League of Their Own (1992)

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Penny Marshall, Phil Spector and Tom Hanks, R2D2 and Kurosawa, and how Madonna made the Baron a feminist

1945 Rockford Peaches Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

Our third VEB Movie Club selection is 1992’s A League of Their Own, Penny Marshall’s family-friendly triumph about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The movie registers a solid 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, with 84% audience approval. Here’s the plot synopsis thanks to a quick Google search:

As America’s stock of athletic young men is depleted during World War II, a professional all-female baseball league springs up in the Midwest, funded by publicity-hungry candy maker Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall). Competitive sisters Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and Kit Keller (Lori Petty) spar with each other, scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) and grumpy has-been coach Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) on their way to fame. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell co-star as two of the sisters’ teammates.

The spirit of the VEB Movie Club is to watch baseball films we may have missed. However, A League of Their Own offers a chance for Re-Watchterpiece Theater for today’s authors, John LaRue and A.E. Schafer (aka the Red Baron).

John: This is a bit of a personal favorite for me. In college, I spent two summers working in the front office of an independent minor league team that played in League Stadium in Huntingburg, Indiana. That ballpark was the filming location for Rockford Peaches home games in the movie, and it looked almost exactly as it did during the movie. Other than the Merkley meat trucks, of course.

Aaron: You know what? Once upon a time, my favourite baseball movie was Eight Men Out. I always considered that to be the thinking man’s baseball film, for some reason. Maybe just because I liked it and I like to pretend I am more clever than other people. (Yes, I am aware of that character flaw, much as it may occasionally seem I am not.) But it also lacked the contrived narrative of nearly every sports movie I can think of. The Rocky arc, if you will. Eight Men Out didn’t have that; it was more a character study of ballplayers put upon by economic pressures who embarked on a course of action with which we may disagree, but is impossible not to at least sympathise with. The quote is, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” (which seems poignant now, to say the least), but it could just as easily be, “If you won’t let a man earn his living honestly, you force him to do so dishonestly.” So there’s a lot there I like.

Over the years, though, I think that more and more I’ve come to like League of Their Own even above Eight Men Out, to the point this is probably my favourite baseball movie. There is something special about viewing a thing you love through the eyes of those it excludes. Baseball is not for girls, I have been told my whole life. Maybe not out loud, mostly, but in lots of small, subtle ways that matter just as much. Here’s a story about girls and baseball. I think it is my favourite story about baseball.

John: One thing that I think is important about this movie is the context. Needless to say, it aces the Bechdel test in an era where that was less common. The 90s weren’t great, but at least a little progressive on such fronts- A League of Their Own star Lori Petty would go on to play Tank Girl, sort of a forerunner to this year’s Birds of Prey. But it was also the Era of Weinstein in the movie industry, just to name one of many wrongs from the era. That adds much more importance to the movie than people even realized in 1992, and may miss today without the context. It’s a gem when you think about it through the lens of female representation, in 1992, with Penny Marshall directing.

It’s a movie about sisterhood- both literal sisters and figurative sisters- stuffed inside a nice, 90s family-friendly baseball shell. They overcome things and make you feel ways about stuff in a light-hearted way, which is very much a 90s major studio movie aesthetic.

Aaron: It made me consider how unpleasant it would be to slide in a skirt. I suppose that counts as moderately light-hearted.

John: Ha... right. To quote Dottie, “I have to squat in that thing.” Marshall clearly had fun taking jabs at 40s era conventions and what these women had to deal with. Like the charm and beauty school stuff, the skirts they wore on the field, and Ira/David Strathairn’s insistence that they be ladylike. Or that they almost didn’t even let poor Marla on the team because she wasn’t attractive enough. The scene where Dottie fills out the lineup card, essentially manages the team, then the announcer says “Jimmy Dugan sure knows his baseball” when Dugan/Hanks had jack squat to do with any of it.

Aaron: David Strathairn: secret MVP of baseball movies. Awesome in my numbers one and two both.

John: Strathairn, and the Cusack family. Between Ann in this movie and John in Eight Men Out.

Aaron: True. Hey, you know what I like, John?

John: What’s that?

Aaron: I really like Phil Spector’s output in the 70s. You know Phil Spector, right?

John: Big crazy hair, produced a ton of great Christmas songs from Motown (I think?), and criminal?

Aaron: That’s mostly right. The Christmas songs and the crazy hair and the criminality are all right. He didn’t produce for Motown, though. Spector is this legendary figure in the music of the early rock era. Almost all the big girl groups of the early 60s were produced by Spector. The Ronettes, The Crystals, Teddy Bears, a couple others. I don’t think he had anything to do with the Shirelles, nor the Shangri-Las, but most of the other girl groups that mattered were produced by Phil Spector. He created a specific sound that defined an era. He crammed way too many studio musicians into a tiny studio, opened up the reverb chambers completely, and the sonic soup that resulted was known as the Wall of Sound. Phil Spector the man is an appalling figure; Phil Spector the record producer is a titan.

The thing is, though, there’s this whole other era of really great Phil Spector records that very few people care about. His most prolific period was the early 60s, when he was lighting up the charts with Darlene Love and the Ronettes and all those groups. He won a Grammy for George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1970, I believe. But once you get into the 70s, Spector became this strange figure, this relic of a bygone age that was only ten or twelve years in the past, but might as well have been fifty years before. The Crystals seemed as distant from where music was in 1975 as Leadbelly recordings.

For all that, though, Spector put together some of his very best work in the 70s. He produced my favourite Leonard Cohen record, Death of a Ladies’ Man. He produced my favourite Ramones record, End of the Century, in 1979-’80, long after people had damn near forgotten Phil Spector ever existed. The fact the Ramones were basically always an early 60s pop group with this veneer of punk guitars over their songs probably helped, of course. And Dion, the dude who put out the songs “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue” in the mid 60s, recorded this absolutely incredible album with Spector in 1975 called Born to Be With You. It’s almost certainly the best thing he ever recorded, and Dion hated it. Funnily enough, Leonard Cohen never really liked Death of a Ladies’ Man, either; it seemed like a lot of the people who worked with Phil Spector ended up feeling like the sucked all the air out of the room and the work wasn’t really theirs. The fact the work remains so amazing is...well, it’s something.

So we have this legendary record producer, known for a signature sound and this amazing run of hits at one point in his career, but with this other era when he did just as good a work, with a couple high points that I personally might think are even higher. To me, League of Their Own is Tom Hanks’s version of Phil Spector’s 1970s. No one ever points to this movie as the best performance of Hanks’s career, and the run for which he is most known will really kick off the year after this in 1993, when he puts out Sleepless in Seattle and Philadelphia in the same year. But League of Their Own is, for me, the perfect Hanks. The charisma and likability and deepdown decency that seem to be the bedrock of what Tom Hanks brings to a role is here, but it’s a dirty part. It’s an ugly man, with regrets, with prejudices, a man who takes on a job coaching women for whom he has no real respect (at least initially), due to his gambling debts. Jimmy Dugan is my favourite Tom Hanks performance, I think. Dugan taking batting practice alone, against the pitching machine, muttering out his life’s grievances to no one in particular, is one of the all-time great throwaway scenes in a movie. Does that scene matter? Not really. But it tells you so much about who this character is. It’s fantastic.

John: That’s a killer analogy. This was kind of his going away party for wacky comedies before, or around the same time, he did Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, all of those vintage 90s award type movies. And as you say, it’s something a little different for him- a mid point between Big Hanks or Burbs Hanks or Hanks/Joe vs The Volcano or Splash Hanks, and Philadelphia Hanks. Nobody was accusing Hanks in Joe vs. The Volcano of spending too much time scratching his nuts as happens in A League of Their Own.

Plus it’d be hard to mention this movie without the clip it’s best known for...

John: Also interesting to me is that it’s hardly accurate in terms of actual names and events, but- as I understand it- it’s very accurate to the spirit of the reality for day to day life of AAGPBL players. You won’t learn about specific players by watching this movie but you’ll definitely get a snapshot of what it was like for them. Dealing with their own families at home, husbands and fathers and brothers away at war and the accompanying anxiety, a public that was frequently dismissive about the idea of women playing baseball, the sexism they had to confront, having to be “ladylike” at all times... these were all day to day issues for these women.

Madonna And Rosie O’Donnell Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

John: Let’s talk about the role(s) of Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna. They’re basically the R2D2 and C3PO of A League of Their Own. Or if you’re hip to Kurosawa and the inspirations for Star Wars, they’re the Tahei and Matashichi from The Hidden Fortress (1958). They aren’t the protagonists. The movie isn’t about them. But they’re a big part of the comic relief, and they work as kind of the throughline that carries the movie from start to finish. Right down to being there as old women in the wrap-up at the end. It’s not the same movie without them, and you almost can’t have it without them. The movie has the strong Dottie and her sibling rivalry with fierce Kit, the quiet and shy Marla, the mousy Evelyn, countless archetypes of the kinds of women who played in the AAGPBL. But it needed the east coast edge and blunt humor of Doris and Mae.

Aaron: Rosie O’Donnell is really likable here, and I say that as someone who normally doesn’t care for her. Usually her knockoff Stockard Channing as Rizzo persona turns me off, but here it’s really good. These kinds of point of view/comic relief characters can go terribly wrong, of course; go ask a video game writer what they think about Vaan and Penelo in Final Fantasy XII if you want to see someone get very frustrated about how a story can be ruined with these sorts of additions. But O’Donnell really knocks it out of the park here, between being slightly awed by Geena Davis’s Dottie (who I am slightly awed by, as well), and functioning as the audience surrogate in so much of the mischief and jokier aspects of the film.

As for Madonna...I have some thoughts. Probably not what you’re expecting, actually. See, in a very real way (two very real ways, actually), I have always considered Madonna to have been a big part of my personal sexual awakening. I wasn’t really a big fan of her music growing up, with the exception of “Material Girl”, and that was mostly because her faux Marilyn Monroe music video performance had this allure to me even at the age of, like, five, that I didn’t quite understand. (The Flaming Lips did an awesome cover version of “Borderline” a few years back. Check it out sometime.) I was very aware how big a deal she was, obviously, but it wasn’t like I was a big fan.

Then came Dick Tracy.

I don’t know if anyone out there has gone back and watched the bizarre bit of cinema history that is 1990’s Dick Tracy, but it is one of the weirdest movies I think I’ve ever seen. Warren Beatty hamming it up as a Golden Age comic book detective, just a couple years after the disaster of Ishtar, but almost an entire decade after Reds. The Beatty of Bonnie & Clyde was nowhere to be seen, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try to find a yellow trench coat somewhere, anywhere that I could talk my grandma into buying for me. (Or shoplifting for me; my grandmother had a thing for stealing...) Al Pacino doesn’t even bother chewing the scenery; he’s just swallowing big chunks of it in whole gulps. Dustin Hoffman (that’s right, Dick Tracy has like four Oscar winners in it), puts on this super weird performance as a mumbling criminal named, appropriately, Mumbles. It would be the strangest choice of his career, were it not for Hook. (Which I also sort of love.) The movie is a bit of a trainwreck, is what I’m saying.

John: Fun fact/tangent- I recently learned that Hollywood f/x folks adore that movie for its use of mostly (or all?) practical effects to build that crazy world. Including the prune faces and mumbling Hoffmans, but I digress.

Aaron: Holy shit. That thing won three Oscars!? All production/effects awards, yes, but still. I would not have expected that.

Aaron: In the midst of all that Tim Burton Batman hyper stylised noir nonsense, Madonna plays a nightclub singer named Breathless Mahoney. She is also, spoiler alert, the mysterious killer in the movie, donning a latex skin mask to appear faceless while she executes hits. I was nine when Dick Tracy came out, far too young to know what a femme fatale was, or to understand the tropes of noir film making. But the version of Madonna that appeared on that screen captivated me pretty much instantly. The pinup sexuality imprinted itself on my just-barely pubescent self in a way that has endured pretty much to the present day; that style of fashion still holds tremendous attraction for me even now. I think I got rid of my framed photo of Veronica Lake I bought in college a few years ago, but suffice to say Madonna’s blonde bombshell of my youth had quite an effect on me.

And then there was League of Their Own, and Madonna again created a sea change in my personal conception of girls. Of women. In Dick Tracy she had been this sultry temptress, and led to some of my earliest overtly sexual ideas of what the opposite sex was all about. Now here she was again, two years later, and she once again threw my conception of what girls were all about up in the air. I was twelve. I knew that girls were these very pretty things that were different from boys, and I had a pretty good idea by that time of what it was that I was supposed to do with one, but girls were not, you know, people. They were girls. They were different.

But then, what about this girl? Mae Mordabito was super sexy, just as sexy as Breathless Mahoney, but she was also this super cool baseball player lady. And she was a badass. She could drink. She slid into second like Pete Rose. And she was this completely unashamed, seemingly liberated woman in the middle of this era that seemed wildly unlike my own world. I don’t want to overstate things and claim that Madonna playing baseball made me a feminist (although that’s an awesome headline we really should have used for this column), but at a time when I was just beginning to understand both biological imperatives and interpersonal relationships, here was this character who was both incredibly sexy and incredibly cool, and the fact she was an athlete and supposedly a really good leadoff hitter (I say supposedly because no one is really drawing any walks in this movie), didn’t change the fact she was also this fun, sexy woman. I love baseball. And she loves baseball? My view of the world was thrown off its axis.

If Breathless was one of the first times I saw a female character as a sexual being, All the Way Mae represented one of the first times I saw a female character as a whole person and a sexual being. I don’t know, maybe my view of her as this cool, unabashed female character is undermined a little by her backstory of being a dancer and throwing a fit when Harvey decides to shut down the league, but I don’t think so. Geena Davis was the big star of this film, and deserves to be. Lori Petty put heart and energy to spare on the screen. Tom Hanks brought a whole heap of great Tom Hanks stuff to the table, and poured it into this flawed vessel. But for me, I always think of Mae Mordabito first when League of Their Own comes up. (We won’t go into how Madonna’s nude pictures from her book Sex were some of the earliest pictures I downloaded when we got the internet back in around 1994. Helps with that ‘sexual awakening’ concept I have toward her, though.)

John: There’s one last thing I want to address. There’s apparently a controversy surrounding the ending (and by the way, SPOILER ALERT for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie).

Aaron: Oh? I was not aware.

John: Yep... some folks think Dottie intentionally dropped the ball when Kit trucked her to let Kit score the game-winning run. What do you think? I definitely have thoughts about this.

Aaron: Oh, wow. I didn’t know there was going to be a test. Huh. That’s a tough one.

I think...

...

...

...yes.

John: Interesting! Controversy! I think it undermines the idea of the struggle and the way the characters overcome so much. In short... I think Kit earned every bit of her victory.

Aaron: Hmm. You make a compelling point. I wonder, though. Dottie was done, and she knew it. She and Bill Pullman were going home. Kit was going to stay, and I think Dottie knew it. Kit wanted to be a ballplayer in a way Dottie didn’t. I don’t know. I thought about it and decided she did, but now I don’t want that to be true. Since there is no way to delete something you’ve typed in a text editor, though, I’m going to have to stick with yes. The story of Kit and so many of the other girls is that of overcoming obstacles, but the story of Dottie isn’t, not really. She’s the best, but she barely even wants it. She is a strange character in a lot of ways. Jimmy is right about her when he says she can’t walk away from the competition, from the game, but then...guess what? She does. She finishes what she starts, but when she finishes it, she is finished. She walks away on her own terms. Did she sabotage her own team to give the win to the most important person in her life? I don’t know. I can’t know. I had no idea this was a question, and now I kind of wish I had never been asked it. When I was a kid I used to have terrible insomnia thinking about what my grandma would tell me about heaven, that it was infinite and eternal, and it scared me so bad I couldn’t sleep. The thought of something going on forever was just too much for my young mind. I have a feeling this question is going to keep me up some nights as well.

John: That... is an awesome, deeply thought out answer. To play devil’s advocate against myself (which is dumb- the devil doesn’t need a damn lawyer), since sisterhood is such a strong theme in the movie, I could definitely see Dottie purposely yielding to Kit to preserve their bond. But who am I to argue with Lori Petty?

John: That just about does it. If you haven’t seen this movie, it’s a strong recommendation. It was a quite a journey. Much like the one the Rockford Peaches went on in A League of Their Own. The real league championship was the bond they made along the way. Until Dottie dropped it. Maybe on purpose, maybe not. Or something.

Where does A League of Their Own rank in your grand list of baseball movies?