Did you know there used to be a women’s baseball league? I don’t blame if you don’t. For all we hear about the Negro Leagues - which may still not be enough - I don’t know that I’ve ever heard about any talk about the women’s league outside the context of A League of Their Own. And that is a shame. Not because the movie is bad but because it’s a work of fiction in tribute to the real deal.
A couple of weeks ago we took a look at 42, which was a “Based on a True Story” movie which was very faithful to reality. A League of Their Own doesn’t indicate that it was based on a true story because...well...it isn’t. Some of the characters do share the names of real women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Also, the general events around the league’s existence are duplicated fictionally. Walter Harvey is a fictional Chicago Cubs owner who helps create the league due to the reduction of available male baseball players thanks to World War II; that’s something the real Phillip K. Wrigley did at the same time for the same reason. All the characters were all based on real-life people to a greater or lesser degree. For example, Tom Hanks’ character, Jimmy Dugan, was some amalgamation of Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, and Hack Wilson while Geena Davis’ character, Dottie Hinson, was based on Lavonne Paire Davis and Dottie Collins.
But the story of the movie isn’t about the creation and existence of the league or people in it. Like many other fictional baseball movies, it’s about something else and baseball is simply the backdrop. In this case, the movie is primarily about the relationship between Dottie Hinson and her younger sister, Kit Keller (Lori Petty). They’re both talented baseball players but while Kit is an above-average pitcher, Dottie is the best overall player in the entire league. This breeds jealousy and puts a huge strain on their relationship until Kit is finally able to best her sister in the final game of the World Series and receives a share of the accolades her sister has always gotten.
The problem with making that the main thread of the movie is that the jealousy thing is played up quite both a bit at the beginning of the movie and toward the end but kind of disappears under a pile of everyday-life-of-baseball-player shenanigans in the middle of the film. It’s not that it feels inauthentic when the plot thread re-emerges late in the film but it does kind of make you scratch your head and ask why it matters again. This is one of those weird things that works exactly like this in real life - speaking from personal experience, I can go months getting along with my siblings before some random event will start us fighting like we had never stopped - but feels awkward in a movie where things are supposed to be a bit more deliberate than in real life.
It also confuses the climactic moment of the film. Dottie left the Rockford Peaches as they were preparing to begin the World Series against the Racine Belles. She returns just in time for Game 7. But...are we even supposed to still be rooting for her? She didn’t intend for Kit to feel slighted or to get traded but she did cause those events and she didn’t apologize for them. The lack of apology, of course, is supposed to serve as her character growth moment as she finally quits putting up with Kit’s whining but unlike earlier, Kit actually has a point when she argues that Dottie was stupid to think that the Peaches would trade their best player out of the two of them. So should we be rooting for Kit and the Belles? The problem is that we don’t even know anything about the Belles except that Kit is their starting pitcher. It’s hard to root for one character we know and (presumably) like against a bunch of others who mostly didn’t do anything wrong either. Neither team can truly be the villain to the audience so it’s kind of impossible to feel any sense of defeat or victory when the final score comes in.
I ended up coming in on the side of rooting for Kit because she felt like the underdog to me and because I could identify with her feeling underappreciated - regardless of whether that feeling is deserved for either of us. But even then I couldn’t be happy with the final moment of the game. Kit collides with her catcher-sister in a gambit to jar the ball loose and score the winning run (complete with cuts that make it appear she was rounding third as the cutoff-woman was getting the ball, bringing to mind too many memories from the 2014 World Series.) The ball doesn’t pop loose, though. Dottie falls to the ground and when her hand finally hits it comes open and the ball slowly rolls out.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally the framing of this moment confers doubt onto whether Dottie did it intentionally to give her sister a win and restore their relationship. If she did do it intentionally, that helps settle the relationship aspect of the climax for us - Dottie chose her sister over baseball (even though “choosing baseball” was never really the issue; the true source of their conflict, as written, was Dottie’s general lack of consideration for her sister in any regard, not her love of baseball.) But nothing is ever said by either sister indicating any such possibility. And if you were hoping to catch something of it in Dottie’s demeanor as they interact after the game good luck; Geena Davis plays the entire movie with the same poker-faced expression of a pre-civil-war era southern belle so you’ll have to be smarter than me to deduce anything that way.
If she didn’t do it intentionally then we are back where we started: wondering what the point of any of this was and who were we supposed to be rooting for and what are we supposed to be feeling right now. And that’s bad when it comes to a movie. Catharsis is one of the most important things that a story provides for its audience (I could write an entire thesis on why this is true, but I’ll save you the effort of reading it and promise you can just trust me.) Catharsis is the process of expressing strong emotion which provides relief from said emotion. The type of emotion varies from story to story, but a climax should always lead to some kind of catharsis. When there’s confusion over what you’re supposed to be feeling there can be no catharsis. Instead of helping to relieve that tension this movie just adds to it.
So what were the alternatives? The first attempt to cut the film into something watchable produced a four-hour-long monstrosity that included a lot more backstory for some of the other girls. Obviously, four hours for a single film is unworkable, but adding in all of that backstory might have fleshed out some of the other characters more and helped the audience know what to feel at the end of the film. Of course, some things that we didn’t get would also have been bad. According to IMDB, the studio tried repeatedly to force director Penny Marshall to get Dottie and Jimmy together by the end of the movie - which would have been a pretty bad look for a movie which also included the perspective of multiple unnamed and/or unimportant characters at the beginning of the film who felt that allowing women to play baseball would damage the fabric of society. Ending the film by having the league’s best player cheat on or divorce her heroic soldier husband to marry a drunken baseball player would have served as a confirmation of that earlier perspective and made for an ugly theme for the movie to convey. The studio also wanted Dottie to cure Jimmy of his drunkenness to which Marshall cleverly responded by having a simple, short scene where Dottie hands him a soda as he goes to drink from his flask. It was a cute scene and followed the letter of the studio’s demands without any of the problematic baggage or stupid story-telling that would have had to accompany any real attempt to shoe-horn that subplot into the film.
Still, this is by no means a bad film. Flawed, sure, but not bad. If you’re looking to show a film to someone to give them a vague idea of what life was like for women during World War II, convincing them that women can play baseball, or see Lori Petty act her heart out this film will do the trick. If you want to see Tom Hanks pee for nearly a full minute*, have a reason to bring up the fact that Madonna hates the midwest and they hate her**, or see Rosie O’Donnell do all the same kinds of bits that Rebel Wilson is known for now***, this film will still do the trick. And if you’re looking for a mostly pleasant, humorous way to spend a couple of hours, this film will absolutely do the trick.
*53 seconds according to one intrepid viewer’s report on IMDB.
** Madonna complained in a letter to a friend during filming that Chicago lacks “beautiful men”. When all the other big-name cast members did performances for unpaid extras in between takes to thank them for their work, Madonna refused, which caused them to all pretend to be her and perform her songs in her stead. And, allegedly, she was so incredibly rude to people in Evansville, Indiana (where they filmed the Racine games) that her reputation still hasn’t recovered there.
*** Seriously. It’s been a while since I saw Rosie O’Donnell perform but her bits, her body language, and even her speech patterns struck me as being exceptionally similar to what I’ve seen or would expect to see from Rebel Wilson. I have no idea if Wilson has modeled herself on O’Donnell or if it’s the one, simple trick to get a slightly overweight woman into Hollywood but I definitely saw it.