A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 399 – A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own – April 3rd, 2011

When I was in high school I hated gym class. If you played a sport after school you didn’t have to take gym, but I was a drama/tech geek and I suck at sports, so gym class it was. It was usually small and of course made up of the unathletic types, like myself. I’m sure we were hugely frustrating for the gym teachers, who were really very cool ladies. I only realize how cool they were now that I’m this far away from it. At the time I resented their insistence that I learn how to stretch properly. But I do recall one awesome time in high school gym when one of the two women who had to deal with us brought in a woman who’d actually played pro baseball.

This movie had come out maybe a year and a half before. Everyone knew it. It was one of the few movies my whole family had agreed to rent with no argument from either myself or my brother. So when we skipped our usual jog around the gym and stretching followed by a half-assed game of badminton so we could sit down and hear about the real story of the AAGPBL. Somewhere I have a signed baseball card from her and for the life of me I cannot find it tonight and cannot remember her name off the top of my head. I’ll kick myself later when I find it somewhere obvious.

My point is that while this movie has some heavy handed moments and relies on some historical inaccuracy in order to make the story more engrossing, I’ve got a minute personal connection to it. And even though I never wanted to play baseball or any other pro sport, I feel like it tells a story that’s important to me. Last night I was struck by how few women were in the movie, and how limited their roles were. That’s not at all an issue here. Showing a group of women from all walks of life, a variety of characters who happen to also be women? That’s part of the whole point of this movie. And I like that while it’s about the two/three main characters it’s also about the team and about the league itself.

The story follows two sisters, Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller, who make it into the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The whole reason they have the opportunity at all is because it’s the middle of World War II and players from the major leagues were being drafted and going off to war. So some enterprising folks created a league for women, hoping to fill the bleachers with people who just wanted to see a live ball game. Dottie and Kit end up on the same team, the Rockford Peaches. And so the movie goes, showing us Dottie and Kit’s rivalry (Kit’s always felt like she plays second fiddle to Dottie, regardless of Dottie’s intentions) set against the development of the team and the league in general.

There’s a lot of baseball in this movie, which is as it should be. Sure, there’s plenty of scenes showing the ladies on the team during their down time, but there’s also a lot of playing on the field. There are montages of women throwing, batting, catching, fielding, running, etc. Women who know what they’re doing and are getting to do it on a bigger stage than ever before. It struck me while watching that while last night’s movie is certainly about baseball, this movie shows a whole lot more actual playing. Because it’s not just Dottie and Kit on the field. You meet all their teammates, from Mae and Doris, two outspoken New Yorkers, to the rest like Shirley and Marla and Helen and Evelyn and Ellen Sue. Shirley learns to read through the course of the film. Marla’s never left home before and ends up leaving the team when she gets married. Evelyn’s son accompanies the team when his father doesn’t want to take care of him while his mother’s on the road. There’s a beauty queen and a dance hall bouncer. Sure, it’s clear that the cross-section of personalities and backgrounds is intentional, but I appreciate seeing them all come together through etiquette lessons and illicit nights out dancing and the interminable bus rides between games.

And then there’s Jimmy Dugan, their coach and manager. A drunk who wasted the last few years of his own baseball career, Jimmy takes the job just for the money, figuring he won’t have to actually do anything. When it’s clear he won’t be any help, Dottie steps in to run the team, keeping them going until Jimmy realizes that he actually has a team of honest to goodness ball players out there. Ball players who can win. And of course the two butt heads (okay, Jimmy butts heads with everyone – that’s his role) but in the end they’ve earned each other’s respect. In this, the movie is as predictable as last night’s was. The movie sets up a couple of conflicts and then lets them play out precisely the way you expect them to, with the ups and downs and eventual reconciliations you knew were coming. It’s a comfortable movie in that way, bolstered by several excellent performances. I truly enjoy Geena Davis as Dottie and Tom Hanks as Jimmy, though it’s Lori Petty as Kit who steals my heart. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are great in the supporting roles of Mae and Doris and I love seeing David Strathairn as the mind behind the league, Ira. There are some great fun moments and some great sentimental moments and the pace is kept up by the pace of the games we’re shown, so I can excuse the predictability here.

What does get me about this movie, unfortunately, is the attempt to make it cover everything. It’s got the conflict between Kit and Dottie. It’s got the conflict between Jimmy and Dottie. It’s got the beginning of the league and its possible end. It’s got the backdrop of the war and the possibility that some of the players’ husbands won’t be coming home. It has a set of bookend scenes set in the present day with a reunion of the players as older women. It’s got all the ball playing. It covers sexism and women as objects and it even tries to touch on segregation. And I understand why it has all of that. I get the intention behind every single one of those things. Unfortunately, it’s a two hour movie. So all of those things get mixed in together and some of them just don’t get the time they deserve and that’s a pity.

Still, I do enjoy this movie. There’s something about it that hits me even though I am as unathletic as they come. It’s a fun movie that shows women getting to use skills they’d been told they shouldn’t even have, let alone expect to show off. It’s got some immensely memorable lines and performances and I admit, I can’t hate on the overly sentimental ending because it makes me tear up every time. Maybe I’m biased. Or maybe it just manages to pull together and be a fun movie about baseball and history and women in just the right way to make me smile.

April 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A League of Their Own

March 3, 2011

A League of Their Own

The second day of our baseball quadruple play is a fantastic contrast to the first. Where The Natural is an mythic tale of epic larger-than-life forces clashing through the game of baseball this movie is an intimate and light hearted film set during a historic time for the sport. This fictionalized re-telling of the creation of the girl’s baseball league could have been heavy handed. It could have been a movie about prejudice and breaking barriers. The characters in the film do have to deal with these issues, but they’re not really what the movie is about, I think, and that makes it a lot easier to watch than it could have been.

The story starts here during World War II when the players in major league all go overseas to fight int he war. Back home the owners decide to put together an all female league to provide baseball while their players are away. This movie follows a few of the members of one of the teams, the Rockford Peaches. Primarily it is the story of two sisters from Oregon, the tall, gorgeous and mature Dottie and her passionate younger sister Kit. Dottie is a born baseball player with unbelievable natural talent but it is her sister Kit who has a true passion for the game. The two of them find themselves recruited to the new all female league where they meet the colorful cast of team-mates with whom they will be playing. There’s the loudmouthed Doris, the sexpot Mae, the less than feminine but strong hitter Marla, and others. The man hired to coach the team is a drunken has-been named Jimmy Dugan, but he can’t be bothered to crawl out of the bottle so the level headed Dottie ends up coaching as well as catching.

The central conflict of the movie is between the two sisters. Kit resents Dottie’s effortless skill and it causes friction between them. Meanwhile the very existence of their league is in peril because the major league owners don’t see the need for these girl players once the boys come home from war. Pretty much the whole rest of the movie is a series of little anecdotes that tell the story of the Peaches, and by extension of the tenuous start of all female major league baseball.

The fun thing about this movie is that it is almost all played for laughs. Penny Marshall has packed the cast with fantastic comedians and there are a lot of moments here that still make me laugh out loud after multiple viewings. In particular Rosie O’Donnell as Doris and Jon Lovitz as the scout Ernie are hilarious. You get the impression that they were given leeway to improvise a lot of their performances, and they bring the movie to life. All of the cast does. Marshall uses a lot of looped and extra dialog to pack extra jokes and punchlines into every scene.

I’m a huge fan of Geena Davis, and this is probably one of her best roles. Dottie is such an effortlessly competent character, so wonderfully in command that it’s simply fun to see her at work. Lori Petty as Kit is all crazy energy, a perfect portrayal of the young woman who is always in her sister’s shadow. David Strathairn portrays what appears to be the only man who believes in the female league, and does so with heart and panache. Of course Tom Hanks is brilliant. This is a less favorable role at first than most he has taken, and it’s interesting to see him play somebody who has so clearly given up on himself. Oh, and yeah, there’s Madona spoofing her own public persona as Mae. Every single role is a home run.

Then there are the bookends to the film which show an aged Dottie in the nineties going to the baseball hall of fame exhibit that features all these girls from the league fifty years later. They lend a bittersweet air of nostalgia to the whole thing. It’s not really specifically about women’s baseball at this point, it’s more a look at how for all of us life moves on. It could be any fiftieth reunion and it would have the same feel – wonder at seeing people you hardly recognise any more and sadness knowing that there are those who you’ll never see again.

This movie does a wonderful job of combining comedy with drama. It takes a deft touch to tell a simple human story about people unexpectedly given a chance to do something they have a passion for but have been prevented from doing professionally and at the same time make it laugh out loud funny and deeply emotional. It looks deceptively simple when you see it on the screen, but this movie is a layered and clever gem that tugs on the heart strings in just the right way.

April 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment