angela weiss/getty images
angela weiss/getty images
Three-time Golden Globe nominee and beloved lady of comedy Penny Marshall passed away at 75.
Marshall was a true pioneer of the form, initially with the TV sitcom Laverne & Shirley which blazed new trails for comediennes as stars of their own shows. That series garnered her the Globe nominations and made her a household name.
She later progressed to directing feature films, starting with Jumping Jack Flash with Whoopi Goldberg in 1986, followed by the fantasy-comedy Big in 1988, starring Tom Hanks as a 12-year-old boy who finds himself in the body of a 30-year-old man. The first film directed by a woman to surpass the $100 million gross mark, Big was nominated for a Globe as Best Comedy as was Hanks.
At the time Marshall told HFPA journalists: “I am glad that more and more women are getting a chance to direct. I don’t know if there’s anything I’ve done, inadvertently, to help the others,” she added with a humility that belied her immense contribution. “I’m the first person on set in the morning, I show up on time and I have stamina. But whether it’s a man or a woman or anything else in between, directing is a tough job, that’s just the nature of the beast.”
She followed with a drama, Awakenings with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams (who received a Best Actor/ Drama Golden Globe nomination for his role), based on the 1973 book by doctor Oliver Sachs about his experimental treatment of sleeping sickness. Marshall said about her directing style: “I use the script as a guideline and I honor it, but I give actors a lot of freedom. That’s why I worked with Tom Hanks and Robin Williams because they are very capable of adding to it and give me something better. My strength as an actress was that I have a certain amount of timing and a sense of humor; so I use that when I’m directing and editing. I think all directors should go to an acting class, to see what an actor has to go through, so you know how to handle their insecurities.”
Her next movie, A League of Their Own, was the true story of a female baseball league started in 1943 as a gimmick to keep sports fan interested in the game while many male players were away fighting in World War II. It starred Geena Davis and Madonna and garnered a Best Comedy Actress Globe nomination for Davis and one for Best Song. It rightfully became a comedy classic and somewhat of a feminist anthem.
Her other films included the comedy Renaissance Man with Danny DeVito, the musical drama The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Huston, a remake of The Bishop’s Wife (1947) with Cary Grant. “I had no desire to do a remake,” she stated then, “but I liked the three characters, and I personally identified with the husband’s problem, a crisis of faith or a lack of self-confidence.”
Riding in Cars With Boys (2001), starring Drew Barrymore, was based on the 1992 autobiography by Beverly Donofrio. “I was a teenage mother myself, I was 19 when I got married, so I know what that’s like and I identified with it. I was a single mother too because we got divorced. We were too young to be raising a child, and there’s no book on how to be a good parent. We were poor and had no nannies, so you do your best. I remember reading Dr. Spock for advice.”
In 1971 Marshall married fellow comedy-actor-turned-director Rob Reiner, who adopted her daughter Tracy. They divorced in 1981. Reiner said: “I loved Penny, she was born with a great gift, a funny bone and the instinct of how to use it. I was very lucky to have lived with her.”
Marshall grew up in a show business family: her mother, Marjorie, was a tap dance teacher, her father, Tony Masciarelli, an Italian-American from Abruzzi who changed his name to Marshall to get work, directed industrial films, her brother was movie director Garry Marshall, and her sister Ronny Marshall Hallin is a TV producer.
Marshall wrote a funny memoir about her life titled My Mother Was Nuts. “Our mother was a little crazy,” she said, “may she rest in peace. But she was very funny, she had a great sense of humor, so my brother and sister and I got it from her. She taught tap dancing in the basement of our building in the Bronx, and we all had to dance from the age of three on, so we were performing all our lives, but we didn’t consider it show business. It was just something our mother did. And that’s what Hollywood does, we’re entertainers.”