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Penny Marshall Blazed Trails, and Told It Like It Is While Doing It

Looking back at Marshall's groundbreaking accomplishments in the entertainment industry after her death at 75.

by Nicole Clark
Dec 19 2018, 8:57pm

Photo by Barbara Rosen/IMAGES/Getty Images

You may have known her as Laverne DeFazio in Laverne & Shirley, or you may have loved one of the many films she directed or produced—but one thing is certain, Penny Marshall is a household name, and one of the only woman directors of her era to have had the honor.

Marshall got her start in 1976 as an actress and became famous for her aforementioned performance of a beer factory worker in Milwaukee who lived with her best friend Shirley Feeney. Her tomboyish wit and talent earned her three Golden Globe nominations for the role, with co-star Cindy Williams, the Shirley to Marshall's Laverne, putting it best on the TODAY show, calling her "one in a million." Williams was one of many in the entertainment industry who sang her praises, and spoke of Marshall with personal affection.

But those of us who did not know her personally were still touched by her work, and the space she made for others through her accomplishments. Marshall made her directorial debut with Jumpin' Jack Flash in 1986, before directing the Tom Hanks led smash hit Big. With that movie, she became the first woman to direct a film that brought in more than $100 million in the box office, an impressive feat in an era when woman directors where practically unheard of. While many woman directors were and continue to be shut out of work regardless of whether they've made a hit or not, Marshall went on to make Awakenings (which was nominated for an Academy Award), A League of Their Own, Renaissance Man, The Preacher's Wife, and Riding in Cars with Boys.

Even if you aren't familiar with all of her films, one look at the actors Marshall cast speaks to the breadth and success of her work. Her films starred household names like Madonna, Geena Davis, Rosie O'Donnell, Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, Danny DeVito, Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, and, of course, Tom Hanks, iconic actors who have persisted in the public eye, remaining part of the zeitgeist years after many of their contemporaries faded away.

Marshall also brought in an era of filmmaking that finally acknowledged the complexities of female camaraderie. Over two decades later, A League of Their Own remains a relevant film for every new generation. A fictionalized retelling of the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, it centered on a sibling rivalry—feuding sisters who could still love one another despite it all. It also told the time-honored tale of women triumphing over men who underestimated them, ending with the women being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was Marshall's second film to make more than $100 million at the box office, beating numerous other male-led baseball films that came out around the same time.

All of these accomplishments made Marshall a trailblazer for women in entertainment, especially those working behind the camera and in the director's chair. We're still leagues behind any kind of gender parity in directing—in 2017, only 11% of the 250 top grossing films were directed by women. But in part thanks to Marshall, we can point to women like Ava DuVernay, Patty Jenkins, Greta Gerwig, and Dee Rees (among others) as the directors behind many of the most successful and impactful films today.

What set Marshall apart as an individual was a certain panache she leant to all of her work. She managed live her life with verve and a refreshing honesty that humanized both her and her subjects (all while developing a trendsetting style). She did so despite the intimidating odds, which she recounts in her memoir, My Mother Was Nuts. The studios, Marshall wrote, "make horror films, films with car crashes and people in big metal suits. I don't do that. The independents do it, but you get paid a nickel and you are going to work as hard."

Marshall was instrumental in opening that first door, in proving that women directors could be household names at all. And her most memorable films taught many young women they could grow up and do the same.

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Penny Marshall