By John H. Foote
15. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992)
How is it possible that a film as fine as this, bathed in warm nostalgia of a time gone by, focusing on the great American pastime when America was at war, so beautifully acted, directed, written and created did not receive a single Academy Award nomination? Not one. Despite fine reviews from the North American film critics, many raves, and being a box office hit, A League of Their Own was not a nominee for Best Picture despite being a better film than at least three of the nominees. No stranger to an Oscar snub, director Penny Marshall had felt the sting of being snubbed in 1990, ignored as Best Director for her film Awakenings, despite the film being among the five films nominated for Best Picture! It would seem, according to the Academy, the film directed itself?
While the snub for Best director must have stung, the complete ignoring of A League of Their Own must have been crushing to all involved, because the film was made with such loving care, and obviously meant to so very much to all the artists involved.
Based loosely on the real All American Girls Professional Baseball League, the film is a comedy-drama about women recruited to play professional baseball while the men are away at war. The hope is to keep baseball in the public eye while the boys are away fighting. In the film women are scouted from all over the United States and Canada, with about 200 invited to try out for the teams, all to be in California. There will be 60 spots for the ladies, with the usual segregation of the time, meaning only white women could play.
When Dottie Henson (Geena Davis) attends the opening of the women’s exhibition in the Baseball Hall of Fame, seeing the photos of the players she knew, it plunges her into flashback, back to 1943 when she was discovered by a cranky, sarcastic scout portrayed by Jon Lovitz. After seeing Dottie play, and being knocked out by her abilities he invites her to be part of the new league, which certainly pays a great deal more than milking cows. Her younger sister Kit (Lori Petty) wants to play but Dottie is content to continue working for the dairy and awaiting the return of her husband, away at war. Told the only way Kit can play is if her sister does too, Dottie agrees and the two ladies accompany Ernie, the grouchy scout, across the United States as he looks at other players. Eventually they end up in California and they are deposited at the field where the try outs are being held. Dottie quickly establishes herself as a leader, and among the finest players in the league, but discovers there is so much more to this league than mere baseball talent. The girls are trained in poise, manners, and their looks are important, as the league will need to be marketed aggressively.
She and Kit make the team, the same team, and they get to know the other ladies on the team from all over North America. There is Mae (Madonna), a taxi dancer hungry for male attention and a fan; male fan favorite, gentle Betty (“Spaghetti) portrayed by the director’s daughter Tracy Reiner; and a former bouncer Doris (Rosie O’Donnell), best friend of Mae.
Managing the team is former pro Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), now a cynical drunk, his career ruined by alcohol. who at first believes the whole thing is something of a joke. He sleeps through most of the games in a drunken haze, leaving Dottie to manage the games, but their infectious love of the game awakens something in Jimmy and he begins to take things seriously. Does he have a crush on Dottie? Maybe, but to the film’s credit it is never acted upon, the story here is about the healing power of baseball, teamwork and a deep love of the game.
Dottie becomes famous after a photographer from LIFE Magazine catches her catching a fly ball while doing the splits which makes the cover of the magazine. Her abilities on the field make her the league’s first star player and Kit is resentful, jealous of the attention her older gets. So great is the rage within Kit that she demands a trade, and the management does just that, trading her to another team.
As the team progresses through the league, Jimmy dries out, and becomes the manager they believed he could be and, in the process, a friend and protector to the women. When a military telegram arrives, he rips it out of the hands of the young man, reads it and walks through the dressing room to Betty (Tracy Reiner), letting her know her husband has been killed. He gathers her in his arms as she falls apart and calls for the nurse to take care of her, displaying his empathy, something not missed by the women. In her room that night, Dottie weeps thinking about Bob (Bill Pullman) and how easily the telegram might have been for her, when there is a knock on her door. She answers and there is Bob, sent home after being injured at war in combat. The two prepare to leave the team and return to their home in Colorado.
But Dottie finds the pull of the game too much and stays for the playoffs and into the World Series. As luck would have it, they end up playing Kit’s team, and Dottie shows no mercy with her younger sister, playing her heart out. But Kit does too and it appears they are now equals on the field. When Kit charges home plate knocking her sister over and causing her to drop the ball, Kit’s team is the champion of the league. The two reconcile after the game, the love they have for one another too great to throw away. Kit will be back next year, Dottie will not.
Jimmy is offered a contract coaching in the minors, usually a path to the pros, but informs them he has a job and prefers doing what he is doing at that moment.
The story cuts back to the present in the Hall of Fame where the women remember one another, and those who have passed with a fondness built by being a part of something important.
Tom Hanks might have had a supporting role but he made the most of it. Knowing the story was about the women, he happily became a part of the fine ensemble as Dugan, his drunken rages hysterically funny, his barely contained fury at mistake the girls make bringing the theatre down. Screaming to one of the girls after an error, and she begins to cry, “There’s no crying in baseball” he uttered what would become one of the most quoted lines in movie history. His performance saved his career, as he struggled mightily after the terrible The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and needed both a hit and a film which showcased his abilities. This did both and a year later he won his first Academy Award as an AIDS victim in Philadelphia (1993).
Madonna, so often ridiculed with reason about her work in film, also fits into the ensemble nicely, never drawing attention to herself, never allowing her performance to become pretentious. Clearly wanting a film career, the singer had tried for several years, surviving bomb after bomb until finally doing good work in this as Mae. Four years later she portrayed Eva Peron in Evita (1996) and gave, arguably, the finest performance of her career.
As someone who despises Rosie O’Donnell as a person, a human being, I do concede that she too was a solid part of the ensemble of the film. Nothing more needed to be said about her.
Lori Petty was excellent as Kit, the jealous younger sister of Dottie and though written as something of a harpy, she gained the audiences sympathy with her sheer love of the game. How hard it must have been to love the game as much as she did and have her sister, to whom it is just a game, be blessed with the gifts. Petty never really caught on as an actress, despite being very good.
And Geena Davis, the towering hero of the film, was superb as Dottie. Deeply compassionate, empathetic, kind, yet a warrior on the field she learns from and yet teaches Jimmy along the way. Is there a spark between them, of course there is, but Dottie makes no secret of the love she has for her husband and no line will ever be crossed. Davis had won an Oscar in 1988 and been nominated again in 1991 for Thelma & Louise; she absolutely deserved to be nominated again for Best Actress for this performance.
Penny Marshall brought so much warmth and nostalgia to the film, guiding the narrative to perfection through the film. We are never permitted to forget that these are the war years and America is deeply involved in the conflict, just as we cannot forget that distraction is very much needed. The women’s baseball league gave that distraction, gave audiences and the crowds something to cheer about, brought smiles to the faces of the paying customers and made heroes of a group of women for a few years.
The Madonna song “This Used to Be My Playground” was a lovely ballad for the film, perfectly complimenting the film and the narrative of the picture. There is a longing to it, like the older versions of the players in the Hall of Fame, remembering what once was.
I remember playing hockey in my youth, I was a goalie, and loved every minute of it. There was something immensely challenging about a player bearing down on me, winding up and unleashing that chunk of volcanized rubber at me. I stopped a lot of them, but just as many went in but I regret nothing. There was no greater feeling than at the end of the game and the other players greeted me with tap of the pads of rub of the head. We were part of a team, part of something special, and it felt good. How I long for those days just once more. One more game, just one.
The ladies must have felt that way moving through the Hall of Fame and seeing their younger selves immortalized.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.