Penny Marshall put actresses into batting order

July 07, 1992|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,Orange County Register

Director Penny Marshall is not worried that her new film, "A League of Their Own," might be a turnoff to women because it's a baseball movie. And she's not worried that it will scare off men because it's a movie about women.

But Ms. Marshall, who has a grander vision, is worried about war, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Seriously.

"My last movie ['Awakenings'] opened [when] the Gulf war broke out," said the director with the most distinctive whine in Hollywood. "After sitting in front of a TV set for 10 hours watching maps and briefings, who wanted to go out and watch Bobby [Robert De Niro] drool for two hours? Now I have to to worry about earthquakes.

"Rain would be nice," she added on a cheerful note. "People love to go to the movies in the rain. But please, no more earthquakes. No disasters of any kind."

The big-budget (estimates have hit $50 million), big-cast (Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz) baseball film is Ms. Marshall's fourth as a director and clearly her most ambitious.

"There were so many people in every scene," she whined. "I'm used to a couple of actors in a close-up."

The movie is a flashback to 1943, when professional baseball was so depleted club owners scoured the nation for the best female ballplayers and created the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

The league is real, and Ms. Marshall said her film is meant to pay tribute to those women who played in the league as well as to inspire today's young girls to follow their own athletic dreams.

But to pay proper tribute to the women, Ms. Marshall acknowledged that she had some difficulty finding enough actresses who also could play baseball. A casting call went out in Hollywood for any woman younger than 35 who could play ball.

"Unfortunately, some of the people we wanted in the film couldn't play ball," Ms. Marshall said, "and the great ballplayers couldn't act. But we did the best we could."

The woman judged by the experts (several former players from the women's league served as technical advisers on the film) to be the best natural player was comic-turned-actress Rosie O'Donnell, who makes her film debut in "A League of Their Own." The actress said she played organized ball in high school and college and was determined to make the cut.

"If I couldn't get this role, doing something I do so well, I was going to give up trying to make it as an actress," she said.

Ms. Marshall said that once the supply of ballplayers ran out, and it ran out quickly, she opted for women who were naturally athletic and trainable.

Geena Davis and Lori Petty fell into that category, although Ms. Petty did have Little League experience. But both women had an even greater obstacle to overcome than learning how to play baseball.

It was Debra Winger, not Ms. Davis, who was picked to play catcher Dottie Hinson, the star of the team and sister of Ms. Petty's character.

Ms. Winger left the cast two weeks before filming was scheduled to begin.

Producer Elliot Abbott said Ms. Winger was never happy about Madonna being cast as one of the players. She didn't have anything against Madonna personally, the producer said, but was afraid the popular singer's appearance at the movie locations in Indiana and Illinois would "cause a circus atmosphere."

"I hated that it happened," Mr. Abbott said. "It was not good timing."

Ms. Davis said Ms. Marshall called her and asked her if she wanted to be in the movie. But first the director suggested that the actress come to her office for a brief tryout.

"There I was in the alley outside her office throwing a ball around in the dark with Elliot [Abbott]," Ms. Davis said. "And I was wearing high heels at the time."

Once she won the part, she had only two weeks to train and she worked "nights and Sundays" to learn how to be a catcher.

Ms. Davis has no qualms about filling in for another actress.

"That's been the case in every movie I've ever been in," she said. "I can name 10 movies I've been cast in that other actresses were supposed to be in first and 10 more movies where I was supposed to be in them first and somebody else ended up in them. That's just the way the business works."

Ms. Petty, who has most of her scenes with Ms. Davis, was not so confident. Although fresh from a hot performance in "Point Break," she said she thought she was new enough in the business that she easily could be replaced.

"Frankly, I was afraid I was next," she said. "Debra and I had worked as a unit, and it was pretty disturbing when she left. We looked alike, and I was nervous they were going to pick two blonds to replace us.

"Once Geena arrived, it was like starting over. We had to learn everything from the beginning. But I was working with an Academy Award winner, so I was in pretty good company."

Ms. Marshall, who said she always has been a big fan of baseball movies and cited "Pride of the Yankees" and "Angels in the Outfield" as her favorites, said she's confident that real ballplayers will be impressed by the baseball scenes in "A League of Their Own."

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