Director's made most of her second career and refuses to let up PENNY MARSHALL ALL SHE CAN BE

June 03, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Incongruous or what? The hotel dining room is posh, brocaded in silks, and through its stately aisles rush liveried waiters with the muted aplomb of funeral directors. Swanky bouquets detonate their expensive colors on each linen-shrouded table, and the silverware and crystal gleam like diamonds in a tiara.

And there, in the middle of it all, sits . . . Laverne?

Yes, Laverne -- that is, Penny Marshall, with those sad Brooklyn eyes and the look of being endlessly put-upon, sitting in a funk of exhaustion so dense it would, a few days later, cause her to collapse and briefly enter the hospital. Her eyes are blue, her hair is blond, she's tan as a surfer and yet everything about her says Brooklyn. Go figure. You can take the woman out of Brooklyn, but you can't take Brooklyn out of the woman.

Marshall, like her colleague Ron Howard, has the entwined good luck/bad fortune to be forever identified by a television role; no matter that, like Howard, she has since leaving the tube built an extraordinarily successful career as a film director. After a somewhat shaky start on "Jumpin' Jack Flash," she segued neatly into three first-class projects -- "Big," "Awakenings" and "A League of Their Own." To these she brought her learned-on-TV professionalism, a shrewd sense of comedy and feeling, and a kind of rigorous toughness.

Basic training

Now, fighting off the exhaustion that attended the ordeal of finishing her latest film, she's out on the hustings beating up some attention for it. It's "Renaissance Man," with Danny DeVito as a former ad man who's forced to take a job on an Army post teaching some dim basic trainees the art of "comprehension," which he does through the use of Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

"I liked what it had to say," says Marshall, firing up a cigarette and sucking down a lungful of tar, then expelling it in a blast of haze. "It's a teaching movie, like 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips' and 'To Sir With Love.' The Army is the last place for a lot of kids to go to get a chance to become someone."

She was also attracted to the character DeVito plays, a Detroit advertising man named Bill Rado who, in his 50s, loses his job and has to start over. "He loses his job at that age; it's like losing everything. But he manages to survive and even triumph; it shows that it's never too late to find something that is meaningful for you."

That almost sounds like Marshall herself, who after seven and a half prosperous years on television lost her job, with few prospects. How on earth did she go from whiny, adenoidal Laverne to the person who gets to yell "Action"?

"I wish I could say it was something I'd worked my whole life to get and that I was really prepared for. But what happened was that they were having a lot of trouble with 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' and had just fired the director. And someone saw me eating dinner with Whoopi Goldberg and said, 'Oh, she can get along with Whoopi.'

"So I got the job, even though at the time I'd only directed a few TV shows. I was in way over my head, but somehow I got through it."

The next three films were big, Oscar-nominated hits, of the sort that would make a male director employable for the rest of his life. But here she is, handing out interviews in a dining room to get the project a few more yards of ink.

The film was made on an authentic basic training facility, Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and Marshall saw as a director certain advantages to the military way of doing things. "Boy, was it nice when those 100,000 troops showed up on time!" she says. "No hassles, no delays, no excuses: There they were."

The script came to her from Jim Burnstein, a professor of English in the Detroit area, who actually had spent some time in the '70s teaching Shakespeare to air national guardsmen at a base in Michigan.

"I chose Danny for two reasons. First of all, because he was the complete antithesis of everything that said 'Army.' And second, because in teacher movies, the guy who loves Shakespeare always has graying temples and a perfectly clipped accent. I wanted the Shakespeare lover to sound like a normal person, a regular guy. For the same reason, when I use the St. Crispin's Day speech from 'Henry V,' I put it in the mouth of someone else who sounds like me -- Lilo Brancato Jr., who has that New York sound."

But she admits: "An Army post is not the most photogenic place in the world. You just try your best to make it look good and to find things to put into it that look interesting."

A touching story

Ultimately, she says, the purpose of "Renaissance Man" is practical.

"I do a movie if it touches me," she says, "if it makes me cry or makes me laugh. I love to cry in the movies, and what this film says is what I think needs to be said.

"When I was in school, boy, did I not want to flunk. Teachers had power, and if you had homework, you handed it in -- geometry, history, math; it didn't matter, you handed it in. I didn't care about any of those things, just as the kids in the movie might not care about Shakespeare or 'Hamlet.' But I learned the discipline of learning -- and that applied across the board, and it became a necessary skill for everything that came afterwards.

"Now the teachers don't have the power to enforce anything, and you can see the results. The movie is finally about that: doing your homework, studying hard and learning the discipline of education."

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