• Ben Keightley

A League of Their Own (1992) - Penny Marshall

In 1943 with World War II threatening the existence of Major League Baseball owners of clubs, notably Walter Harvey (owner of the Cubs) agrees to recruit women to set up a league until the men return from fighting. As such the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) was started. A League of Their Own tells the story of the women who made up the Rockford Peaches. Directed by Penny Marshall (Big) and starring Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O'Connell, Madonna, and Tom Hanks the film is a masterclass in light-hearted, but deeply moving comedy.

The story opens in 1988 with Dottie on her way to an exhibit on the AAGPBL as part of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This event triggers her memories and the film flashbacks to a simpler time.

A scout is out looking for talent to help keep the baseball league alive until the men return from fighting in the war. Across his travels, he spots Dottie (an excellent Geena Davis) and despite her reluctance convinces her to join the league, along with her younger sister Kit (Lori Petty). Along the way, they meet other hopefuls, including Mae "All the Way" Mordabito (Madonna) a dancer and Doris (Rosie O'Donnell), a bouncer. Also added to the roster are unattractive, boyish Marla, illiterate Shirley, softly spoken Evelyn, and former Miss Georgia, Ellen along with 40 other women who will make up four teams that will compete in the inaugural girls league. These women are, on first introduction a plethora of stereotypical women who, gradually, over the course of the story are subtly revealed to be much more than the labels and expectations put on them by the world. The assembled team, Rockford Peaches, needs a coach and Tom Hanks is drafted in. He plays Jimmy Dugan, a wash-up drunk former home run specialist who is in need of redemption and purpose in his life. He treats the assignment initially as a joke, but gradually comes to see the value and qualities of these women.

The Rockford Peaces
The Rockford Peaces

Despite its light tone A League of Their Own is a complex film that handles and explores its themes and ideas with subtly and grace. It's one of the great sports films, and is so, not because it's about sport, but because it's about something bigger; liberation, transition, friendship and redefining one's role in both society and their own eyes. At the heart of the film is the central relationship between Dottie and Kit, sisters who thanks to Dottie's seeming perfection, have an underlying tension that runs throughout and gives the film its most emotional highlights. Despite the somewhat formulaic plot, the story of these siblings in genuinely heartwrenching because of two note-perfect performances (from Davis and Petty) and great character and writing. Kit has always lived in the shadow of the perfect Dottie. She is the star player but would give it all up for her husband - away fighting in the war. Kit yearns to escape from her sister's shadow and leads to her inferiority. The film's plot is dotted with moments where Dottie shines and Kit fails and delivers a few unexpected, and delightful, surprises along the way.

Geena Davis (Dottie) and Lori Petty (Kit) as sisters in A League of Their Own

Second to this plotline is Dugan's (Hanks) journey of redemption. A one-time star he is given an olive branch by club owner Walter when he is made coach of the team. Dugan will learn both the strength and quality of these women but also his own self-worth. That despite the best days of his life being behind him, cut short by an injury which led to alcoholism, he has a chance to do and be part of something important. The women's league may begin as an attempt of the clubs owners to keep their franchise financially alive, but by the end Dugan, and these women will have learned that their place in society doesn't have to be the role thrust upon them. That they too can break out and be part of something important. Dugan's growing fondness and affection for Dottie is another note-perfect strand to the films many strengths.

Dottie is played by Geena Davis (in what may be a career-best performance), and it quickly emerges that despite her nonchalance for joining the league, she is the team's (and film's) strongest asset. It's an understated but brilliant performance from Davis who holds the screen and audience attention in every scene. Her presence, enhanced by her height and beauty mean she commands every scene and it's her respective talent that ultimately makes the league a success. There are other talents on the team, but Dottie (and Davis) has the right mix of qualities to make everything she touches turn to gold. Early on when the league is at risk due to a lack of enthusiasm and engagement from spectators, Dottie effortlessly conjures up a moment, handily captured on camera, of her skills. This turning point brings in the crowds and ensures the short term success of the league.

Director Penny Marshall on the set of A League of Their Own
Director Penny Marshall on the set of A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own has that winning combination of effortless charm, wit and endearing sentiment that ensures it will be beloved by audiences for eternity. It never hammers home its themes or ideas, especially those of the role of women in society, wearing everything lightly. It navigates a path through a fascinating, real story of female empowerment at a time when there were bigger, graver threats afoot, without ever losing sight of either the bigger picture of the achievement of these women. If at first these women are merely keeping a sport alive until the men return, by the end the women, and the message of the film is an overwhelming powerful one about their own self-worth and the contribution they can make to society. It's what makes the 1988-set framing story so effective. As these women, now in their 70s and 80s, come back together to reminisce about the fun times they had together on the baseball field you truly feel their achievement and the lightness with which they bore the responsibility.

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