The Losers: Penny Marshall Should Have Won an Oscar

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Big Movie

Twentieth Century Fox

Over the past week, we’ve been celebrating the losers – those talented filmmakers whom Oscar has foolishly overlooked. In this final entry, we ask the Zoltar Machine for a do-over.

If you asked me specifically which Oscar-winning director should have their gold snatched away and given to Penny Marshall, I don’t know that I’d have an answer. The year she would have been eligible for Big, Barry Levinson won for Rain Man. The year she would have been eligible for Awakenings, Kevin Costner won for Dances With Wolves. The year she would have been eligible for A League of Their Own, Clint Eastwood won for Unforgiven.

There’s no easy way to rewrite history and slide her name in where someone else’s was previously, although a case can easily be made that Big and Rain Man (the Best Picture of 1988) share near-identical emotional DNA. The following year, the Academy would make Driving Miss Daisy its big winner. This is the universe we were living in.

The thing is, Marshall was never even nominated. Not once in her career.

Admittedly, that makes at least a little sense through modern eyes. The three movies in that list represent the height of her talent – a four-year span where America was still reeling from the bombastic flourish of the 1980s, popping champagne over a wall coming down, but not exactly sobered by battling back Iraq from Kuwait’s borders – and they all feature a signature blend of happiness and pain. Through modern eyes, these types of movies are a bit too broad, a bit too populist to make the Oscar stage. It also makes sense because it’s damned difficult to score Oscar nominations with this small a body of work.

However, when Awakenings was nominated for Best Picture, Marshall joined an elite crew of filmmakers who made one of the best movies of the year, but weren’t considered one of the five best directors. For what it’s worth, that happened to another filmmaker that same year, Jerry Zucker, who didn’t receive a Best Director nomination when Ghost scored one for Best Picture, but, also for what it’s worth, Marshall absolutely should have been in the running.

This is the moment that Marshall came closest, and it’s a moment that should have been hers. Whether or not she should have beat out Costner – not to mention Coppola or Scorsese (or, okay, Stephen Frears or Barbet Schroeder) – is up for conversation, but it still seems absurd that she didn’t even get a nomination.

Arguably, even with only a few movies beneath her belt, she won something far greater than an Oscar. She made movies that were recognized both for artistic merit, entertainment value and heart. That’s a difficult balance to reach. Josh Baskin dancing on a giant piano, Leonard Lowe talking through a Ouija board and Dottie Hinson catching a ball while doing the splits all landed during a cinematic time when movies could hit a sweet spot of earnestness. They have a rewatchability, quotability and legacy greater than several of the Oscar winners in the surrounding years. There’s no crying in baseball. I wish I were big. It’s a fucking miracle.

Marshall’s ear for comedy was peerless, and her partnership with Tom Hanks helped elevate him to a new stratosphere. With A League of Their Own, they made a movie that very well should have been recognized by the Oscars, but by that point the award had moved on from that particular brand of sweeping insta-nostalgia, passionate instead about Unforgiven and A Few Good Men and aggressive melodrama.

Marshall continued to make films, but not many, and none of them came anywhere near the level demanded by the Oscars. Renaissance Man and The Preacher’s Wife — itself a remake of a film that the late 1940s incarnation of the Academy Awards thought to be highly worthy – were too fluffy and heartwarming for the Oscars of the time. So that was it. Marshall’s career wound down into a working retirement (she last directed 15 years ago) without an Oscar nomination to her name.

So, no, I can’t name a specific moment in time where she should have won, but I know the woman who gave us Awakenings, Big and A League of Their Own definitely deserved to. That’s a hell of a batting average for such a brief creative period. With the benefit of hindsight and the ability to see what movies have actually survived the test of time, maybe AMPAS can polish an honorary award for Marshall and make amends to comedy at the same time.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.