Female Directors: How Penny Marshall Hit it Big

         Born into a showbiz family, Penny Marshall, landed her first major television role as Jack Klugman's secretary Myrna in The Odd Couple (1970–75). Marshall’s biggest break came when her brother Garry Marshall recruited her and real-life friend Cindy Williams to play “fast girls” on his hit ABC series Happy Days (1974–1984). The pair proved so popular that the network engineered an equally successful spin-off, Laverne and Shirley (1976–1983), which followed the girls' adventures as poor-but-happy Milwaukee beer-factory workers. Struggling to build on her success, Marshall appeared in a number of television movies and feature films; but it was her role as director for a handful of Laverne and Shirley episodes that foreshadowed her Hollywood future. Her big-screen directorial debut, the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986), was largely unsuccessful.

         Undaunted, she went on to make her next feature, Big (1988), which garnered an Oscar nomination for actor Tom Hanks and established Marshall as a masterful comic director. The film tells the story of Josh Baskin, a young boy who makes a wish at a carnival machine to be big. He wakes up the following morning to find that his wish has been granted and his body has grown older over night. Josh is forced to struggle with his new adult life and process it through the eyes of his twelve year old mind. Big was highly successful and also the first film directed by a woman to gross over one hundred million dollars.

         In 1990, Marshall turned her attention away from comedy toward the drama genre and directed Awakenings, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a passionate and somewhat unorthodox doctor struggling to cure patients of encephalitis, a sleeping disorder, which struck many victims in the 1920s, rendering them motionless and seemingly thoughtless.

         Marshall then directed Tom Hanks, Madonna, and Geena Davis in the hit baseball comedy, A League of Their Own (1992) based on the true story of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.

         Marshall’s most recent film, Riding in Cars with Boys, was released in 2001 and starred Drew Barrymore and James Woods. Set in the 1960’s, the main character, Beverly, becomes pregnant at sixteen. She is an aspiring writer and must figure out how to balance a husband with a drug problem, her son growing up, and her dream of being a published author. Her father, played by Woods, is a conservative man who has never forgiven his daughter for becoming pregnant at such a young age.

         Penny Marshall continues to direct and produce feature films. In recent years, she has earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has directed and produced several television commercials and short projects.

Tara Wagner

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