For years, baseball movies were as white-washed as home plate before the start of a game. Then came "Bang the Drum Slowly,'' "Bull Durham'' and "Major League,'' which showed that Hollywood could be both gritty and witty when looking at America's durable pastime.
Now comes "A League of Their Own,'' an affectionate if flawed look at the first season of a women's professional baseball league. Director Penny Marshall gives the film a nostalgic sheen that makes the film as pleasant a time-killer as a double-header on a balmy Sunday afternoon.
It's 1943, and both the major and minor leagues lost many players to active service. So candy-bar magnate Walter Harvey (the very funny Gary Marshall) decides to start a league for women. Just as women filled in for men on the assembly lines, they'd fill in for athletes on the basepaths.
THE LEAGUE sends a super-cynical scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) out into the hinterlands, where he spots Dottie and Kit Keller (Geena Davis and Lori Petty) playing at a women's dairy softball game. Dottie, played by Davis, stands out as a hitter and fielder, but Kit whiffs. The two share an intense sibling rivalry that forms the core of the film's dramatic action. Capadino wants to take Dottie and leave Kit, but Dottie insists on letting her sister try out as a pitcher. Off they go with the promise of making $75 a week.
In Chicago, league president Ira Lowenstein (David Strathairn) assembles the Peaches, one of four teams, from a crew whose variety resembles the cockpit crews of World War II films. Madonna plays "All the Way'' Mae, a center fielder with a past; Rosie O'Donnell plays Doris, Mae's best friend and an assertive woman; Megan Cavanagh plays Marla Hooch, a frump who inevitably gains confidence; and a host of other players whose characters enliven the action.
HAND-PICKED to lead the women is Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), a former home-run hitter whose drinking destroyed his career. At first, he snoozes in the dugout and mutters about the women not being ballplayers. But Dottie takes over the team, and soon their success and intense play brings him around, until he can give inspirational speechs about just how wonderful and hard baseball is.
The screenplay, by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, is a pleasant mix of familiar situations and genuine funny moments. Director of photography Miroslav Ondricek covers the screen with warm, autumn-like colors; although this is about the summer game, it has an aura of sadness that this era somehow passed without its due.
The big drawback to the film is the frame we see an older Dottie (Lynn Cartwright) go back to Cooperstown for a reunion of the league. This touch seems overly maudlin and doesn't exactly seem to resolve anything.
HANKS, IN a deliciously overblown performance, raises his batting average with this one after drifting beneath the Mendoza line in "The Bonfire of the Vanities.'' Davis scores big as well; we can believe she's as athletic as she's made out to be. Petty brings one or two basic emotions to a one-or-two-basic-emotion part, and Madonna, who proves once again she's a better dancer than singer, finally reaches the major leagues in filmdom.
"A League of their Own,'' isn't perfect, but it's about a game where, after all, the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times at the plate. Marshall gets a lot of wood on this one, and her cast goes the distance.