Way back in 1992, a “Tom Hanks movie” wasn’t Apollo 13 or Cast Away, but more like Turner & Hooch or, if we were lucky, Big. So the top-billing he receives for a supporting (if pivotal) role in A League of Their Own, Penny Marshall’s women’s baseball comedy now released on a special edition DVD, is somewhat mysterious.
The movie is supposed to be about the women, particularly Dottie Hinson, played by Geena Davis, who, by ‘92, already had her Oscar, thanks. Dottie is the semi-reluctant (and fictional) star player of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League. She joins the league (itself formed, nonfictionally, in 1943 when it seemed World War II might put men’s baseball on hold) ostensibly because caustic scout Ernie (Jon Lovitz) won’t take her little sister Kit (Lori Petty) without the prettier, more talented Dottie.
Dottie is also levelheaded, contrasting with Kit’s raging insecurity. Davis is immensely enjoyable at the movie’s center, giving an unfussy movie star performance. Davis is surprisingly plainspoken for the star she briefly was; like Dottie, she doesn’t demand the spotlight so much as it naturally gravitates toward her. You may sympathize with poor Lori Petty, dwarfed by the tall and unflappable Davis, but Kit isn’t written as particularly likable. The assignment to Dottie of so many admirable qualities, alongside Davis’ performance, almost makes it feel as if the filmmakers themselves are picking on Kit.
Davis the actress, of course, would be picked on herself just a few years later after appearing in a couple of low-grossing action movies, a couple of Stuart Little pictures, and pretty much dropping off of the big-screen radar; the top billing of Hanks seems almost cruelly prescient. Crueler still, on the packaging of this new DVD, she’s relegated to third billing, behind not only Hanks, but, inexplicably, Madonna, who’s maybe the fourth or fifth most prominent character in the movie (and not exactly beloved for her film work, either).
This game of revolving careers and musical credits makes the movie seem like a Hollywood yearbook: It’s Geena Davis during her brief heyday! And Tom Hanks before he was king of the Oscars! Look, there’s Rosie O’Donnell before she wore out her welcome! Hey, whatever happened to Lori Petty?
Such semi-nostalgia fits well with League, an engagingly old fashioned and family-friendly comedy. The script has some good lines and Marshall’s direction is sure-handed (if predictable), but it’s a movie star picture all the way. The main attraction isn’t so much baseball (although the game sequences are fairly exciting) as the spectacle of those aforementioned, generally distaff careers coming together for a mutual high point.
Even Hanks, who would go on to anchor all those huge prestige projects, gives one of his best performances as Jimmy Dugan, a baseball star turned washed-up alcoholic turned women’s baseball coach; first reluctantly and then, of course, passionately. This Hanks performance—full of spitting, scratching and yelling—is just shy of over-the-top, keeping the comedy (he’s easily the funniest character in the movie) thoroughly human. The famous “There’s no crying in baseball!” scene gets heavy workouts on clip compilations, and justifiably so. But my favorite moment is the follow-up: When Dugan must give the same, formerly crying player some coaching on her latest blunder, he contains his rage to the point of quaking.
It’s almost unfair to the film’s many women—most assigned one “loveable” quirk to hit over and over (one is superstitious, one is awkward, one is a beauty queen)—that Hanks is so good here. Indeed, save for the Dottie-Kit sibling rivalry, the women are more cuddly symbols than fleshed-out characters. I don’t think this is latent sexism so much as it is indicative of the Hollywood preference for stars—male or female—above just about anything else (except maybe special effects, of which League is charmingly free). Despite their satirizing of a time when female athletes were expected to wear skirts and take classes in poise, the filmmakers can’t resist broad jokes at the expense of Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh), an awkward and purportedly unattractive tomboy. It’s probably supposed to be affectionate (Cavanagh participates in the commentary track), but Marla doesn’t have enough depth to make the jokes less cheap.
Tellingly, then, the DVD extras are more in step with the film as a well-liked Hollywood production than any kind of strong statement about gender politics. There is a behind-the-scenes documentary (on the film, not the actual league), and the aforementioned commentary with Marshall and some supporting actresses; I would’ve liked to hear Davis’s take.
The deleted material includes the most attractive extra-half an hour’s worth of full scenes, not just bits and alternate takes, from an early cut of the movie that ran four hours. They’re a mixed bag, of course: some awkward expository scenes (we hear more details about Dottie’s marriage, and her prudery) and some extra comic grace notes from Hanks and Lovitz (who has a funny but irrelevant monologue). Buried in this deck of scenes like a rare baseball card is a scene between stars Davis and Hanks in which their romantic tension is briefly, awkwardly consummated with a kiss. The relationship is better left subtle, of course, but think of this scene as a brief round of fantasy baseball.