Penny in My Thoughts
By Lorenzo Mameli
February 20th, 2019
It’s one of those movies that causes you to stop channel surfing and put your remote down. You’ve seen it dozens of times, you remember certain scenes, and there are chunks of dialogue that you’ve committed to memory. It’s like cinematic comfort food. You knew you were hungry for something, but you couldn’t decide what to sink your teeth in to. “A League of Their Own” is one of those movies.
Penny Marshall directed it. When I heard that she had passed away in December, it triggered a rush of memories because she had always been one of my favorites.
She came into my life at age seven, beamed into our house over the airwaves that were eventually received by our old Magnavox with the plastic simulated wood-grain cabinet. She was Oscar Madison’s sweet and slightly goofy secretary on “The Odd Couple”, and the sound of her voice alone seemed to induce as many laughs as the lines she delivered. She would enter a scene, say something as simple as “Hi Mr. Madison” in that endearing nasal twang of hers and get me to smile in anticipation. It was usually around this time that we had to smack the side of that plastic cabinet to clear up the reception.
She would later portray the character of the sassy and saucy Laverne DiFazio in an episode of “Happy Days”, alongside Cindy Williams’ equally tough Shirley Feeney, and a legendary comedy duo was born. The characters would get spun off in to their own series and have their rough edges softened considerably. “Laverne and Shirley” had a healthy run, and Penny Marshall became a star. It was one of the last shows that I can recall watching religiously with my mom as my teenage years increasingly called me to other diversions. One lasting impression it left on me: I became a fan of milk and Pepsi. Laverne loved it. Shirley did not.
We moved on from the Magnavox. One too many smacks on the side caused the cabinet to crack. Penny would eventually move on to film, deciding to spend more time behind the camera than in front of it. Her first foray into feature films, “Jumping Jack Flash”, was – aside from Aretha Franklin’s cover of The Stones’ classic – mostly forgettable. But she would take a giant leap forward with her next effort, “Big.” The story of a young boy who has his wish to be older come true lead to an Oscar nomination for Tom Hanks, and the film became the first movie directed by a woman to gross over 100 million dollars domestically. It also led to countless parents and their kids waiting in long lines at F.A.O. Shwarz to try their feet on the giant walking keyboard.
Her next film, “Awakenings”, received a Best Picture nomination, and Robert DeNiro received a Best Actor nod for his most physical role since “Raging Bull”. He plays a seemingly catatonic patient who is roused from his state by a new treatment, only to tragically discover the effects are not permanent. Curiously, the Academy chose not to acknowledge Marshall. Robin Williams co-starred as DeNiro’s doctor and gave one of his best, pre- “Good Will Hunting” performances.
“A League of Their Own” became her third hit in a row, and the second female-directed film to break $100 million at the box office. It was also that rare sports film that is almost entirely about women. Geena Davis, Lori Singer, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell figure prominently, but it would be Tom Hanks who would have the film’s signature moment. “There’s no crying in baseball” would become iconic enough to be ranked #54 on the American Film Institute’s “Top 100 Movie Quotes of All Time”.
She had a few great quotes about her craft. On Directing:
“I don't know one lens from another. That's not my job. It's the cinematographer's job. But I can talk to people.”
On working with actors:
“You need to see what the actor needs. This one wants to be talked to privately. That one doesn't mind if you block it for them. Just tell me the truth and I'll adapt to it.”
On her “look”:
“I would much rather feel comfortable and feel beautiful, than to feel uncomfortable, but look fantastic.”
Penny Marshall was 75 years old when she left us on December 17. I hadn’t thought of that old Magnavox in that wood-paneled basement in a very long time. It sat on a rolling cart that never rolled from the spot it was in. My mom would sit in one of those tubular steel, vinyl-coated kitchen chairs and hem a pair of my father’s work pants while watching that TV. She would only get up to smack the side when neccessary.
The Sound of Arkin
By Lorenzo Mameli
It’s late in the afternoon on another late autumn Saturday, and I’m moving around the house, tending to one task after another. My wife is in the living room, scanning through the previews on Netflix. I can hear bits and pieces of dialog, but for the most part, they’re nothing more than background noise. Then, I hear a voice that commands my attention. It’s the familiar, seemingly ageless voice of Alan Arkin, exchanging barbs with Michael Douglas, in a promo for “The Kaminsky Method”. I immediately pick up the remote and add it to my watch list.
I’m not quite sure what it is about Arkin’s voice that I find so appealing. I’ve been hearing it for as long as I’ve been watching movies, beginning with his Oscar nominated performance in “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”, which I vaguely remember seeing with my parents at our now long-gone neighborhood movie palace. Maybe it’s the tone, that common man quality to it, or perhaps it’s his recognizable delivery. He was raised in L.A., but he sounds like he never left his native Brooklyn. Maybe that’s it – I’m just representin’ for my fellow Brooklynite. It could also be that I’m so impressed by how consistent it is from one film to the next, without ever actually being…well…the same.
It’s the voice of the hustling dad in “Slums of Beverly Hills”, the veteran producer in “Argo”, the berated salesman in “Glengarry Glen Ross”, the supportive neighbor in “Edward Scissorhands”, the malevolent criminal in “Wait Until Dark”, and the salty grandfather in “Little Miss Sunshine”, for which he won an Oscar.
Therefore, it’s odd that my favorite Alan Arkin performance took place fifty years ago, in a film where his voice is never heard. The role of John Singer, a deaf mute, in “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. It’s an acting clinic by Arkin, as he brings his considerable talents to bear in the realization of Singer’s character, who, in spite of his disabilities, proves to be an effective listener. Its not only my favorite Alan Arkin performance; it’s one of my favorite performances ever. (It’s also a deeply moving film with a great cast, lead by a teenage Sondra Locke, and rounded out, notably, by Cicely Tyson, Stacey Keach, Chuck McCann and Percy Rodriguez.)
I’ve grown quite accustomed to the recent vintage of Arkin’s work. After binging on “Kaminsky”, I’m going to take in some of his work from the seventies. I’ve never seen “Catch-22” in its entirety, and I haven’t revisited his buddy cop comedy with James Caan, “Freebie and The Bean” in a long time. Somehow, I’ve never managed to cross “The Seven Per Cent Solution” off my list either. Arkin plays Freud in that one, and what fan of his voice wouldn’t want to hear his take on old Sigmund?