When A League of Their Own hit theaters on July 1, 1992, it was up against a crowded slate of blockbusters, including Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3, Patriot Games, and Universal Soldier, that were expected to linger around multiplexes all summer. But when Labor Day rolled around two months later, all those other movies had faded away, and A League of Their Own was still packing in crowds on its way toward a $107.5 million domestic gross.
Love for the Penny Marshall-directed film about the World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, staring Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Tom Hanks, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell, has only grown in the three decades that followed thanks to VHS rentals, DVD sales, and endless replays on cable television. It’s a rare movie that appeals to people across all age groups and demographics, and it revived interest in the half-forgotten AAGPBL.
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In honor of A League of Their Own‘s 30th anniversary, we spoke with screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel — who also wrote City Slickers, Splash, Parenthood, Spies Like Us, Multiplicity, and Mr. Saturday Night, among others — about the creation of the movie. Here, they dive into the genesis of the famous “There’s no crying in baseball” scene, why the film nearly stared Debra Winger and Jim Belushi instead of Davis and Hanks, why it would never get a green light today, and more.
I know you guys are both baseball fans, but how much did you know about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League prior to starting work on the League of Their Own screenplay?
Lowell Ganz: Nothing.
Babaloo Mandel: He’s a baseball maven. I said, “You know anything about this?” He said, “No.”
Ganz: It was a complete mystery to me. But Penny Marshall got in touch with us. We had known Penny forever. She had assumed that if it’s about baseball, I’d be aware of it. But I said no, and then she asked the key question: “Do you think there’s a movie in it?” That’s when we started to do the thing we hate the most: research.
Can you walk us through that process?
Ganz: We hate research. When we wrote City Slickers, we never left the office.
Mandel: We made one phone call.
Ganz: Then we took the rest of the afternoon off [laughs]. But with A League of Their Own, we really wanted to get it right. Even though the movie’s not a documentary at all, it’s our own characters and story, we really wanted to be faithful to the history of it. So we read old Life magazines and all kinds of stuff like that. And there was one young lady who was in the League for a minute, and then she went to college and she did a master’s thesis. It was like a thousand pages, and we read it.
Many of the women were also still alive at the time.
Ganz: Not many of them are today, but this was 30 years ago, and the majority of them were, indeed, alive. We did a lot of interviewing. And then I went up to Cooperstown where they had that ceremony [which bookends the movie]. We talked to everyone there, and they were very helpful.
You clearly got the history right, since it’s pretty accurate, but how did you go about creating the story?
Ganz: That’s where Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson [who have story credits on the film] come in. Kelly’s mom was in the League, and they mentioned that there were two sisters involved. We all thought that was an interesting dynamic. That fell into place immediately. And then we found out about Jimmie Fox, the former Hall of Famer who coached in the League for a while. It turned out that he was a prince of a guy, even though he’d had trouble with alcohol at some point in his life. The ladies all spoke glowingly of him. They thought he was great, but as we said to each other, that’s not funny. And so [in creating Jimmy Dugan] we kept the part where he was a former Hall of Famer who had shortened his career due to alcohol, and combined it with a serious resistance to coaching in the League.
Are there any ideas you batted around that didn’t ultimately make it onto the screen?
Ganz: At one point, there was going to be a romance between Jimmy and Dottie. We kicked that to the curb.
Mandel: We shot some of the stuff, but it just tainted the movie. It was predictable. We wanted to take the high road.
Ganz: It felt like, “Well, you’ve got Tom Hanks and you’ve got Geena Davis, so you should do something with that.” But it looked obligatory. And as Babaloo said, it was a waste of time.
Mandel: Her husband is fighting a war! No. No. Don’t do it. The thought makes me want to start drinking.
Were you thinking about what actors might play these characters as you were writing them?
Ganz: No. Unless an actor has been attached by the time the job starts, we almost never do.
Mandel: In fact, we thought Jimmy Dugan would be an older guy. We were thinking Paul Newman or somebody. But then Tom read it or Penny called Tom. I’m not sure completely how it happened, but we loved the idea. There’s a moment in the movie where Gary Marshall, playing Mr. Harvey, says to Tom, “You’re a young man. You should still be playing.” We wrote that specifically for Tom, since he was about 35 when we shot that. And as far as the ladies were concerned, casting was contingent on whether they were athletic, and whether they could play ball. It was impossible to preconceive anything in that regard.
I’m sure you weren’t thinking about Madonna when you wrote “All the Way” Mae.
Ganz: No. I think that was Penny’s idea.
It’s a pretty amazing casting move. She was one of the most famous people on the planet at that point, and she has a relatively small role.
Mandel: And she couldn’t have been nicer. My kids were little then and they were shagging balls on the field. She was out there every day practicing, and she couldn’t have been sweeter to them.
Ganz: She also became very tight with Rosie, which really helped the movie. We wrote them as buddies and they actually became buddies.
I’ve always reads that Debra Winger was originally going to play Dottie.
Ganz: It was Debra Winger. But she had script troubles and casting troubles, and it was a little difficult.
Mandel: But the hand of God has affected our career numerous times…
Ganz: We were sitting in our office and Geena Davis called us. She was wondering if we could do work on Speechless. We said, “Boy, we’d love to help you, but we’re really busy.” She said something like, “Yeah, you’re doing that Penny Marshall movie. I read it. It’s terrific. The only problem is the only part I’d be interested in doing has already been cast.” We said, “Hold that thought…” And then we talked to Penny and she told us about Debra’s objections to certain things in the movie. We said, “If you’re interested, I could get in touch with Geena Davis and we could bring her out for an audition.” All of them had to come out to USC and try out for Rod Dedeaux, who was the USC baseball coach emeritus. And she cast Geena.
That’s crazy. I cannot picture anyone else playing that role.
Mandel: She brought an elegance to it.
I’ve read that Jim Belushi was in talks to be Jimmy Dugan. That I have an easier time imagining. You could have slipped him right into that uniform and it probably would have worked.
Ganz: He was good. He gave a very good reading. But we’d worked with Tom before on Splash. Penny had worked with him on Big. We love him. He’s great. We all agreed it was a tremendous idea and that we should re-write the part for him, but Columbia was hesitant.
Mandel: [Tom had] had a couple of unsuccessful movies. You know Hollywood…
Right. He had just gone through the Bonfire of the Vanities disaster.
Ganz: Right. We all trip over the corner of the rug every once in a while. But beyond even that, the studio felt it had no international appeal, since it was a baseball movie. They were hoping to find someone who had been in action pictures, or just some kind of thing that had traveled well. They hesitated for a moment on Tom. But Penny was at the top of her game. She was coming off Big and Awakenings. It’s always good when there’s a giant on your side.
I cannot tell you how much I love the Jon Lovitz character. It’s a rare thing in a movie where every single line a character says is funny, but you pulled it off with him.
Mandel: We wrote for him. He was living with Penny and she wanted—
Ganz: Not romantically. He was just crashing with her. She said to us, “Write a part for Jon so he’ll move out.” And so we did. He always had that vibe like he was from the Forties anyway.
Mandel: He was like a Warner Bros. stock character.
I read he had a bigger part originally. Is that true?
Ganz: He was so funny that we tried a few things. We tried to include him in a scene at the roadhouse where the girls are all dancing and Madonna does that dance number. We had Jon in that scene trying to [hit on one of the girls] — one of the locals, not one of the players. It was probably funny, but I don’t really remember it.
A lot was cut from the movie, it sounds like.
Mandel: The first cut was four hours.
Ganz: Penny likes to shoot.
Cutting it down must have been hard.
Mandel: They wanted to cut Tom kissing the chaperone.
Ganz: We almost lost that scene at the train station between Marla and her father.
I’m so glad that stayed. What’s amazing is that we’ve just met Marla at that point, and she still almost brings you to tears.
Ganz: Thanks. It’s always great if we can hit the audience from behind a little. We want to really immerse them in that scene and then have Jon say his line, “See, how it works is, the train moves, not the station.” A laugh like that is almost out of proportion because it’s the punch you don’t see that knocks you out.
Did Jon improvise any of his lines? I’m thinking about when he snapped at the cow, “Will you shut up?”
Mandel: He improv’d the cow, but not the train scene.
How about, “Keep these wild animals away from me! Haven’t you ever heard of a leash?”
Ganz: We were on the set that day. We chatted it over with him before we shot. It wasn’t in the script. We didn’t write it until we got there.
Can you talk about how much Penny brought to this movie?
Mandel: If you go on YouTube, you can see behind-the-scenes footage that the studio shot. If you watch Penny, she directed the girls, every movement. What you see on that screen is Penny.
Ganz: It’s Penny’s movie, all our ego aside. We wrote every word and I still consider it her movie.
Mandel: Yes. It’s her movie.
Ganz: Every girl had an idea and a life and an intention in every scene. Penny gave them that. They were living in those parts, and Penny gave it life. It’s hard to imagine anyone could have brought as much to that movie as Penny.
I think of the scene where Betty finds out her husband is dead. I’ve seen it 100 times and it still gives me chills.
Ganz: Again, it’s all written, but it’s just one of those things. She believed in those characters so vividly, so sincerely, and she communicated that to them. She always gave the ladies behaviors. When Dottie and Kit are having that big fight after Kit’s been traded, they’re up in the room and the girls are outside. One of them’s listening at the door and they’re whispering to each other about what’s going on. That was just Penny going, “Yeah, that’s what they would do. That’s how they would behave.” We wrote the scene, but she wrote…
Mandel: The atmosphere.
Ganz: The scene you’re talking about, by the way, that’s Penny’s daughter [Tracy Reiner] playing Betty. And what was so enjoyable for us is that the movie has so many comic scenes, or “antic moments” as I say, and they didn’t hurt a scene like [Betty finding out about her husband]. That’s a deft directorial touch. The antic scenes aren’t stealing from that kind of scene, and that kind of scene isn’t stealing from the comedy.
Switching gears, the League was obviously segregated. You dealt with that by having a Black women on the sidelines throw a ball in. It’s a brief moment, but an important one. Can you talk about coming up with that?
Ganz: We were very aware that we were an all-white movie. It would have been dishonest to integrate the League and act like that happened, since that didn’t happen.
Mandel: Doing that would have been bullshit. It’s not what happened.
Ganz: We really pondered this. We thought, “Should it come up as a story point? Should someone say, ‘Am I allowed to scout colored girls?’” That’s the term they would have used back then. The whole thing was just a bone in our throat the whole time.
Mandel: We wanted to be impactful, but subtle.
Ganz: And we didn’t want to be dishonest. So that’s what we came up with. We felt really good about it since we were able to acknowledge it. It’s not a soapbox, but it’s there.
The most famous scene, the one you see in all the clip packages, is “There’s no crying in baseball.” Do you remember coming up with that line?
Ganz: Yeah. We wrote it, like we wrote everything, very organically. In fact, [after the movie came out] it became such a big deal that the Writers Guild asked us for the original handwritten page, because we write everything in longhand before it gets typed up. And they put it in the hallway along with several other [script pages from other movies]. You can just see us come to it gradually as we rework the words. You see the cross-outs and the inserts to get the sentence right.
It’s become one of the most iconic moments in movie history.
Ganz: It wasn’t planned — “Oh you know what would be a great line?” We just loved the fact that he, being himself, would make one of the ladies cry and how that would flummox him completely, that a ballplayer cried. It would be beyond what he could absorb as a former ballplayer. And then words just came. And of course, all modesty aside, there’s a thing an actor can do that a writer can’t do. Tom seized it. He grabbed onto it so hard and raised it to the place that it is.
Mandel: We knew it had something, because they used to send us the VHS dailies of the movie. And then when we saw it, we went, “Oh, my God.”
Did you guys always know that the movie would climax in that World Series moment where Kit is running to home plate and Dottie’s there trying to stop her?
Ganz: We knew. We like to know where we’re going. What do you always say, Babaloo? “There’s a lot of ways to find gold, but you like a map.” So even when our structure is a little loose and we don’t always end up where we mean to… I mean, sometimes the trip takes us to a different place. But I think one of the earliest decisions we made was to get them on opposite teams and then to reverse-engineer it [to reach that moment].
I’ve heard lots of debate on this, so I want to ask the guys that wrote it: Did Kit knock the ball out or did Dottie drop it on purpose?
Ganz: It never occurred to us at the time [that this was an issue], but we did recognize that it would occur to some people. That’s why Kit says something about it to Dottie in the locker room afterwards when they have their last conversation. She says something like, “You just wanted it more.” We wanted, ironically, to eliminate that question. It turns out that the question persists. But our feeling was that Dottie wanted to win, and Kit needed to win.
When you first saw the final cut, did you feel like it was going to be a hit?
Ganz: No. Until we see it with an audience, we never know.
Mandel: It also wasn’t clear immediately. There was the editing process and a lot of cutting. Bookends had to be re-shot.
Ganz: It had to be cut in half. As he said, we wrote a front piece of older Dottie leaving for Cooperstown. The feeling was the end piece, the epilogue [at Cooperstown] was too much of a surprise to the audience. They were going, “Why are we here now?” And Penny just loved the epilogue. We felt it was giving the ladies their due, but we decided that it needed a prologue to support it… But this movie really grew in the editing process and the audience-testing process.
Mandel: This wasn’t City Slickers where you showed it to the audience and…
Ganz: They all go, “Oh my God.” Parenthood and Splash were like that too. They loved those immediately. This took work to get there. I think of all our movies, this one has had the longest legs. I wouldn’t have guessed that.
Mandel: At the premiere, there were three studio executives not from our studio. They said, “The League didn’t work, why should this movie?” I just went, “Oh God.”
It’s become just this cultural touchstone. Kids today still watch it and really love it.
Ganz: There are little girls that get dressed up as the players for Halloween.
Mandel: I’ve seen grown adults show up at my door in the costume.
Let’s talk about a few more of your movies before we wrap. Spies Like Us is really an overlooked masterpiece.
Mandel: Doctor, doctor, doctor…
I was just going to ask you about that scene! Did you write it like that, just them saying “doctor” over and over and over?
Mandel: We didn’t write all of that movie, but we wrote that scene. It’s just how we wrote it.
Ganz: This was SNL people. This was the big leagues as far as we were concerned. We have a couple of nice movies, and Splash was a big deal, we always had to cast unknowns in our movies. Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks or John Candy were TV people back then. We were never at the top of the tree, and suddenly it was John Landis and Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. We went, “Holy shit, we’re in show business.”
Multiplicity, where Michael Keaton replicates himself to disastrous effect, also deserves far more attention. A lot of people don’t know it, but it’s great.
Ganz: I was very pleased with it, but it wasn’t one of our megahits, so that taints it a bit.
Mandel: The timing was off. Dolly the [cloned] sheep didn’t happen until just a bit later.
Ganz: Also the technology, if you watch it, isn’t as slick as it would be today. But Michael is so great. And [director] Harold [Ramis] is one of the all-time best.
Mr. Saturday Night, about the ups and downs of a comedian played by Billy Crystal, is another favorite of mine. It also wasn’t a big hit, yet it came to Broadway earlier this year, still starring Billy Crystal and David Paymer — and it really, really works.
Ganz: It’s very satisfying since it underperformed as a movie. What’s great is that we’re not just stretching out something that’s a money machine. It’s not like, “Let’s lick the peel. Is there any more juice left in this?” It’s sort of like your child that never got his or her due, and it’s finally happening.
It’s clear the project is very close to Billy’s heart.
Ganz: Yeah. We started on the [book] seven years ago. He was whatever age he was then. Babaloo and I said to each other, “Does he know what he’s doing? Has he thought this through?” And, when he finally got it up on its feet, he was seven years older. It’s amazing to me.
Adding songs into it was a really inspired choice.
Ganz: That’s how Billy brought it to brought it to us. He said, “Do you think there’s a musical in this?” And what was weird was, we had been working on a musical version of [the 1982 comedy Night Shift, about a morgue attendant], so we had already studied up and learned a little about that genre at that point.
You always hear people say that Hollywood has stopped making mid-budget movies aimed at adults. Those were the kind of movies you two created for years, often to huge financial success and acclaim. Do you think that’s a fair assessment of what’s happening?
Ganz: You said it in almost the exact words I use.
Mandel: Can’t you see us sitting at home here?
Ganz: Look, we’re not bitter or angry. In this case, we tend to be glass-half-full guys. We go, “Wasn’t it great that we came of age in the movie business when they wanted to make exactly what we wanted to write?” Shouldn’t we be happy about that rather than a little sad now that we’re in our seventies, there isn’t a big market for what we do?
There is a market for it, though. The studios just gave up.
Ganz: Yeah. The middle-class, middle-brow movie is largely gone. It’s franchise movies and boutique movies. There always are a couple of exceptions every year, but that’s it.
Do you think A League of Their Own would get the green light today?
Ganz: The short answer is no. The glib answer is no. And I think that probably about true about most of our best movies.
Mandel: Brian Grazer once said they wouldn’t make Parenthood today.
Ganz: He’s the producer of Parenthood!
The Amazon TV version of A League of Their Own is coming. Are you happy that’s happening?
Ganz: No. [Laughs.] I mean, anyone can make a living. God bless them.
Mandel: My daughter works on the show as a costume designer.
Ganz: Look, we’ve done one sequel in our entire career. That’s City Slickers. And the reason we don’t do more is we put our characters where we want them to be.
Mandel: The story is over. It’s done.
Ganz: It’s the reason that we are not more active in television. When we were in television originally as young fellas, television was all standalone episodes. If you did a sitcom, it was 24 standalone episodes. They weren’t like today. And so when we went to movies, we wanted them to be standalone movies also. We will take our characters to where we want them to stop. So I’m not particularly excited about seeing another version or a continuation or anything like that.
Did you see that Seth Rogen tweet about you guys? He said he could teach a college course about your movies.
Mandel: Yeah. I tried to get ahold of him. I couldn’t find him.
Ganz: Superbad is one of my favorite comedies in recent years. It was funny and it was sincere at the same time. That’s kind of rare. I find that a lot of the comedy movies, when they get into sincerity, it looks obligatory. It’s like somebody told them, “You really need to have a sincere scene here to make it more appealing,” but that the writers are kind of doing it with a gun to their heads. But this actually felt like the comedy and the sincerity of it were very comfortable with it. And so I was very flattered by what he wrote.
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