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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: A League of Their Own (1992)

* * * 1/2

Director: Penny Marshall
Starring: Genna Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty

A League of Their Own is one of the movies that I love unconditionally and without apology. I wouldn’t ever claim that it’s one of the best movies ever made, but it’s one that I can watch over and over again without my enjoyment of it being at all diminished. It’s a sports movie rife with the usual sports movie clich├ęs, but it’s also more than that which is perhaps why it means so much to me.

In 1942 the men are away at war and women are recruited to keep America’s national pastime alive. Two of these recruits are Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty), who are sisters as well as rivals and both of whom become Rockford Peaches, joining Doris (Rosie O’Donnell) and “All The Way” May (Madonna), amongst others. The Peaches’ coach is former baseball player Jimmy Dougan (Tom Hanks), whose alcoholism makes him unfit to play anymore and whose lack of cartilage in one knee makes him unfit for service. At first Jimmy wants to coach women about as much as spectators want to see women play – which is very little, indeed. But, slowly, he and the spectators begin to come around and by the time the team is in the World Series, everyone is fully invested. However, problems between Dottie and Kit steadily increase as the season wears on, especially when it’s decided to promote Dottie as the team’s star and Kit finds herself still in her sister’s shadow.

What’s interesting about this film isn’t really the aspects of the game itself, but the feminist current that runs through it. When the men are called to war, women who until then had been socialized to marry, have children, and stay in the kitchen, are suddenly called upon to do their part and keep industry running. Women are given a purpose that was once considered solely masculine and then, at war’s end, are expected to just walk away and go back to the kitchen - the owner of the Peaches (Garry Marshall) even says as much, though the league’s promoter (David Strathairn) disagrees, arguing that the women have earned the right to continue working. The problem that all the women are facing is the struggle between social ideas about what’s expected of women and what they themselves know that they can do and be good at. Jimmy tells Dottie that she “plays like [she] loves it,” but she denies it, insisting that the moment her husband (Bill Pullman) is back, she’ll just give it up - which she does before deciding to see it through to the end of the season by playing in the last game. Dottie chooses domesticity and seems happy with it, but that’s not the choice all women want to make, and one of the points the film makes is that you can’t shift the culture into one direction when it’s convenient and then expect it to bounce right back afterwards.

Even though the women get to play baseball, there’s still an attempt by management to make sure they maintain their “femininity.” All are required to attend charm school, their uniforms consist of skirts rather than pants, and the league promotes games by doing things like offering a kiss from one of the players to anyone who catches a foul ball. These women might play like men, but they certainly aren’t treated that way. And even though by going en mass to work women made strides towards equality, the film subtly acknowledges the way that equality rarely comes to everyone at once. Women of color, after all, aren’t being afforded the same opportunity at the white women who make up the four teams of the league.

There are too many things about this movie that I love for me to really express my full admiration for it. I like the performances (even Madonna is good here) and the story and the way that the story directly addresses issues of importance. In short, it’s just a really great movie.

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