Brow Beat

The Sleepover Auteur

How Penny Marshall taught a generation of girls about movies and about life.

Scene of team celebrating on the field in A League of Their Own.
Marshall’s films were exceptional entry points into the magic of movies.

In the same way some movies are best watched on the big screen as originally intended, there is an optimal way to view a Penny Marshall movie. For perfect conditions, and I’m speaking scientifically, it ought to be the ’90s, you ought to be a child, and you ought to be attending a slumber party in one of your friend’s basements. As the director of Big and A League of Their Own, Marshall was, among other things, an auteur of the girly sleepover movie, and with her death Tuesday at 75, a certain cohort of her fans should spread out their sleeping bags and pillows on the carpet to pay tribute.

There are perhaps other movies that basement gatherings move on to when the participants get a little older, maybe even Marshall’s own Riding in Cars With Boys. But Big and A League of Their Own are kid-appropriate adult movies, exceptional entry points into the magic of movies perfect for those charmed early sleepovers, which themselves feel like entry points into some version of adulthood. This doesn’t mean they’re for kids or Disney-fied—Big has some sex scenes in it that you probably shouldn’t think about too hard—but they are the kind of features that make kids first fall in love with movies.

Big is, of course, all about a 12-year-old kid’s fantasy of adult life, and Marshall’s directing gave us that perfect piano scene, but it’s also full of other memorable images: Josh’s tree-lined suburban street, the Zoltar machine, the oversize suit. Throughout, Marshall makes being a grown-up in the big city look like the funnest (and scariest) thing in the world. The contrast between the fantasy and the terror of being on your own made the movie an essential watch for a generation of young people (and hopefully, if we are good to our children, the next generation as well). You gawk at Josh’s grown-up apartment filled with toys, but you’re also thinking, on the precipice of growing up, about the trade-offs it will bring and how friendships and relationships with the very people you’re watching with might change—heavy stuff for a sleepover, but also exactly what sleepovers are for.

Though she was sometimes criticized for sentimentality, Marshall countered by speaking about the importance of movies having heart—and no movie has more heart than A League of Their Own. (Marshall’s older brother, Garry, had a similar fondness for telling women’s stories, but it’s fair to say Penny made more out of fewer opportunities.) For every crazy-fun scene in League—etiquette school, swing dancing—there’s an equally compelling downbeat one. And of course, one of the major reasons A League of Their Own feels like such a revelation is that there really aren’t that many movies about women in sports, or women period—the sheer joy of watching a cast full of women (and what a cast! Madonna! Rosie O’Donnell!) on screen can’t be overstated. It was quietly profound to discover a movie like this as a young woman, in a room full of future women, even if it’s sad, as one grows older, to see how rare it, and its having also been directed by a woman, have remained. (The movie is also feminist in subtler ways: Geena Davis and Tom Hanks’ leads don’t engage in a romance, which just about never happens.)

According to the Washington Post, Marshall wasn’t proud of her post-League work, blaming the increasingly demanding modern movie-making machine, which may provide a hint as to why she didn’t direct more movies in her career. It’s impossible to say how much of the struggle was because of her being a female director—the first ever to make a $100 million-grossing film—but I have to guess that it did have to do with why Hollywood didn’t beg her to make more. She deserved better. Marshall was the unacknowledged fairy godmother of millions of slumber parties, not to mention a woman who taught young people, especially girls, about the power of the movies.