Being a lover of television and film of a certain age, an artist like Penny Marshall has entertained me for decades. As a kid, I found myself surprisingly enjoying the Happy Days spin-off Laverne & Shirley that she starred in alongside Cindy Williams, but I'd be lying if I said Penny's work as an actress is why news of her death struck me—hell, in a 2012 New Yorker profile, Marshall herself said "I can’t act that well, but I can sell a bit." What I will always remember from Penny Marshall are the classic films she created from the director's chair.
Acclaimed director Ava DuVernay tweeted about the loss of Penny Marshall, saying "Thank you, Penny Marshall. For the trails you blazed. The laughs you gave. The hearts you warmed." For those of you unaware with what Penny Marshall accomplished as a director, here's a quick look back.
She got the bug to direct on the set of Laverne, ultimately directing four episodes of the acclaimed series. It wasn't until 1986 that, at the urging of Whoopi Goldberg, Marshall made her feature film directorial debut with Jumpin' Jack Flash. While panned by critics, it didn't deter Marshall from working on more films, and her next film—1988's Big—was the first of many classics under her belt.
Big, a family-fantasy starring Tom Hanks as the adult version of a boy's wish to "be big" actually coming true, was a massive success, both at the box office ($151.7 million brought in) and in establishing Hanks as a force in Hollywood, complete with an Oscar nomination in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category. Interestingly enough, stars Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins thought the film was going to be immediately sent straight-to-video, but Marshall made it work. It probably helped that she added interesting touches, like having Hanks watch video of his younger self (portrayed by David Moscow) in action so he could pattern his acting after the child. Whatever the reasoning, this was a recipe for success, making Marshall the first woman ever to direct a film that made more than $100 million at the box office.
After that, Marshall went on a streak: the 1990 film Awakenings (starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro) earned three Oscar nominations and one Golden Globe nom. One of her best films, 1992's A League of Their Own, told the tale based on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and became another scorcher at the box office for Marshall (earning $132.4 million during its theater run). It was also preserved in the National Film Registry in 2012 as a work "of enduring importance to American culture."
Marshall's streak dipped with the release of Renaissance Man in 1994, but she did direct Whitney Houston in Houston's third (and final) on-screen role in 1996's The Preacher's Wife. That film not only earned an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score but also won two Image Award nominations (it received five nominations that year). Marshall's final film as a director was the underrated 2001 Drew Barrymore drama Riding in Cars With Boys, which Roger Ebert described as "refreshing and startling in the way it cuts loose from formula and shows us confused lives we recognize."
That's a string that ran through the narratives of many of her films. Sure, Big dropped during a year where a multitude of "people changing their age" flicks dropped, but it's the one that cut through the rest to establish its lead as a true star and put Penny on the map as a certified force in Tinseltown. A League of Their Own told a touching tale about a piece of history many might not have remembered (or even knew existed) and featured a predominately female cast who brought the funny just as well as they brought the emotion. And even if Renaissance Man was seen as underwhelming, Danny DeVito ultimately brought it as a teacher working with soldiers who loved to rap more than they loved reading Shakespeare (although they ultimately found a way to fuse the two). It's just what Penny Marshall did as a director; in an Indiewire interview from 2012, Marshall simply said, "there’s comedy in drama and drama in comedy."
While some of her peers may have the deeper iMDb catalog, Penny Marshall ultimately made an impact on the world of film with a smaller group of projects that shined bright. She's a director who chalks her career up to being an "accident," crediting her ability to show up when she's supposed to being a big factor. It's the simple things, really, which made Penny Marshall's film work shine and, more importantly, continue to be this relevant. She's had a way of capturing the simple things in life, the things many of us related to, and turn those into memorable moments. That's what I'll miss most from Penny Marshall no longer being around. Rest in peace, Penny.