Bird Watching – An Open Letter to Penny Marshall
Dear Ms. Marshall,
Charm is a very hard thing to achieve. Charm is borderline undefinable, yet when someone is reaching for it and not getting there, everyone can tell, and the result is awkward and painful. As I write this, I’m watching, probably for the fiftieth time, your wonderful film Big (1988). Not only does the film itself exude charm, its very storyline relies on it. We have to understand how Elizabeth Perkins’s character, Susan, can’t help but be drawn to Tom Hanks’s Josh, both despite and because of his 13-year-old boy behavior. His sincerity is crucial, and the rest of the film has to balance around that. Tom Hanks’s brilliant performance would have been wasted without the sure mood that surrounds it. That came from you. The combination makes for a film that charms completely, and is one of the few films to come out of the 80s to feel somehow timeless.
It’s been ten years since you directed your last film, and that makes me sad.
We see these qualities of sincerity, charm, and a confident mood in another fun film you made, 1992’s A League of Their Own. Most women I know count this among their go-to feel-good movies, and I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. There are few films made about women, by women, that manage to be perceived as being unwaveringly for everyone. A League of Their Own seems to accomplish that with ease, but I know that it must have been a difficult thing, given the nature of the dominance of male stories in Hollywood. It’s worth noting that almost two decades before the Bridesmaids phenomenon, this primarily female-driven comedy made $107 million at the domestic box office.
But light charmers are not all you can do; you also have Oscar-nominated drama on your resume. Awakenings (1990) was nominated for Best Picture (though you, to my dismay, are in that minority of directors who did not receive matching nominations for their films). Much like with Big, this film is a showcase for a definitive performance by the lead actor—in this case, Robert De Niro, in my personal favorite role of his. The film sits amongst those that can always make me cry. It shows once again your steady hand in telling compelling stories that take their characters seriously, never wavering in tone, always respecting the audience.
Like just about every director with big successes, you’ve also made films that haven’t reached those same levels, financial or critical. I hope that the underwhelming performance of the last theatrical film you made, 2001’s Riding in Cars with Boys, didn’t contribute to this long hiatus. I hope that the reason you haven’t made a film in recent years is your own reason, and not a reflection of a double standard for women, when so many male directors make true flops (or flop after flop…) and still get work. I know that you’ve still done some film producing, and directing for television, so maybe you don’t want to be directing films anymore. Or maybe you just haven’t found another project you want to devote yourself to. Whatever it is, I hope something changes.
Women who have directed multiple well-performing, popular, enduring, quality, mainstream films are sadly rare, in no small part because of lack of opportunity to nab those great scripts from a major studio. I spend a lot of my time researching, watching, and writing about films made my women, and while there are impressive works in all genres and levels of film, it seems like many of the most talented women choose to focus their work in the indie world—or have no choice but to do that. This makes for some great art. But it doesn’t make for the kind of power I want to see women in Hollywood have: the same power as men. Big was the first film directed by a woman that grossed over $100 million. You will always have the distinction of being the one who crossed that threshold, and while I know that it’s rationally an arbitrary one, in the Hollywood system it has real meaning. Your successes must mean that you have opportunities that some other female directors, who would love to be working on those types of studio films, can’t get as easily. I have to believe that it still means that, since it would for a man. And I would love to see you return to creating those kinds of films, because your talent for it can’t be questioned.
Here’s hoping that sometime in the future, we’ll again be able to go to the movies and see “A Penny Marshall Film” written across the screen. It would be a happy day for me.