WASHINGTON -- Perhaps it's the rough Bronx accent with its blustery crescendos that jab the air like one-two punches. Or the brusque facade that many have long associated with the cantankerous characters he's played, like Murphy Brown's boss Stan Lansing in the 1990s TV sitcom.
Director Garry Marshall doesn't come across as a romantic spinner of fairy tales.
But with box-office triumphs ranging from Pretty Woman to Runaway Bride, that's exactly what he's been -- a writer, actor and director who has pooh-poohed these increasingly cynical times and stuck to his belief that life on the big screen should always be better than reality.
In many Marshall films, the unspoken credo has been that princesses, knights in shining armor and big, big love can and should exist in the everyday. And these elements are present yet again in The Princess Diaries, which opens Friday. The film -- which stars Julie Andrews and newcomer Anne Hathaway -- even takes Marshall's princess metaphor one step further, placing a real princess at the heart of the tale.
"Some people, they call me the 'Earl of Estrogen,' " Marshall, 66, said with a chuckle during a recent visit to Washington to promote his latest film. "My work has always appealed to young people and women. Maybe it's because I had sisters, I had daughters, and that led me to have a type of fairy-tale feel in my movies. But I think there's a place for fairy tales today -- if there is some reality to it and if you make them laugh with it."
The Marshall formula for moviemaking has served him well through the decades. From the 1970s television hit sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley to Pretty Woman, which remains one of the 50 top-grossing movies of all time, Marshall's combination of romance and humor with a sprinkling of fairy-tale magic has been a success.
In The Princess Diaries, he applies the blueprint to an endearing story about gawky San Francisco teen-ager Mia Thermopolis (Hathaway) who discovers that her estranged father was crown prince of a tiny European country named Genovia. The Queen (Andrews) treks to America to give her unbecoming granddaughter a makeover and persuade her to move to Genovia and assume her royal responsibilities. The film is one of just two G-rated films this summer. Calle 54, the other, is not opening in Baltimore.
"I have grandchildren now, two little girls, and I wanted to do something that they could see," said Marshall, who not only made Diaries for his granddaughters, he also put them in the movie. Look for the 6-year-old twins playing autograph seekers in a scene outside Mia's private school.
"Men-coming-of-age pictures, there's a million," Marshall added. "There are not so many women-coming-of-age pictures, and women-coming-of-age pictures always seem to deal with losing their virginity, which I don't think is the key to coming of age. There are other things! So in Princess Diaries, there's a girl coming of age but without the virginity business. There's kissing, we know there's boys, but it's about a grandmother trying to help her granddaughter be elegant and understand what a princess has to do in today's world."
In many ways, Marshall himself has played the role of grandparent, mentor and guide to many in Hollywood today. In television, his shows Happy Days, Mork & Mindy and Laverne & Shirley propelled young actors like his sister Penny Marshall, Robin Williams and Ron Howard to fame. And Julia Roberts was still a fresh face from Georgia before Pretty Woman.
"What makes new stars -- and I've been involved in a lot of doing that in my career -- is if the other stars, the veterans, give them room to work," Marshall said. "When we brought Robin Williams on Happy Days, the cast backed off and gave Robin a chance to be Robin. Same thing with Pretty Woman. Richard Gere backed off and gave Julia Roberts a shot. In this case, Julie Andrews is a consummate professional and she gave a lot of the kids room to work. This Anne Hathaway, she's gonna be all right. She's very talented. She's pretty and not afraid to be clumsy."
Some films have fizzled
It's been a little harder for Marshall to predict for himself which movies will work and which won't. While his career has seen huge successes, Marshall also has had his share of box-office flops.
Exit to Eden, a bizarre 1994 romantic comedy, featured Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Aykroyd as undercover cops infiltrating a dominatrix sex resort. It made a dismal $6.8 million and reportedly lost $13 million. Two years later, Dear God, starring Greg Kinnear as a postal worker who answers letters mailed to God, fared just a tad better, bringing in $7 million.