Penny Marshall has directed six films in her career: 'The Preachers Wife' (1996), 'Renaissance Man' (1994), 'A League of Their Own' (1992), 'Awakenings' (1990), 'Big' (1998), and 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' (1986). We know Penny best from her stint in Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983) as the hilarious Laverne De Fazio. After the series was cancelled Laverne appeared in some pictures until her directorial debut in 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'. This film was pretty much a bomb and Penny gained credibility as a director in 'Big'. Tom Hanks received a nomination for Best Actor in this picture. Marshall's best directorial accomplishment had to be in 'Awakenings's tarring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.
This film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Robert DeNiro), and for Best Adapted Screenplay. Penny Marshall's style is classical. 'Awakenings' and 'Big' in particular are based upon a three-act structure. 'A League of their Own' and 'Big' are tall tales, strongly centered on plot.
There exists good and bad people, and characters that are changed by their experiences (Dr. Malcolm Sayer, Josh Baskin). Character actors are prominent in her films and certainly used to reflect the persona of the star as well as to draw people to the movie. In films such as 'Big' Penny places a high emphasis on setting which are highly selective in detail. Penny Marshall's typical choice of genre is comedy probably because of her comedic background, but she did direct 'Awakenings' which is a drama.
Her films tend to deal with contemporary issues in society such as coming of age ('Big'), oppression of the mentally handicapped ('Awakenings'), and women's accomplishment ('A League of their Own'). Penny Marshall's films are not multi million dollar movies which are filled with special effects and fancy camera action rather they are simple pictures which let the actors convey the messages. Penny does not attempt to use film as an art form; rather she uses film to tell a story. Penny Marshall's story sources consist of original and adapted screenplays. 'Big' was written by Gary Ross who is best known for writing and producing 'Pleasantville', and Anne Spielberg who wrote 'Toy Story'. 'Awakenings' was adapted from a book of the same title by Oliver Sacks and written for the screen by Steven Zaillian who wrote 'Schindler's List' and 'A Civil Action' to name but a few.
From these two films it is presumed that Penny uses a variety of sources. In 'Awakenings' and 'Big' Penny's style is classicism. Personality actors are used (Robin Williams, Robert DeNiro, Tom Hanks) rather than unknown actors. The acting is a little larger than life; for example when Tom Hanks gets his wish and moves to the 'Big' city. His actions as well as his demeanor are highly exaggerated. This is exceptional casting because Tom Hanks is an excellent external actor and was able to bring himself into the situation of a thirteen-year-old.
'Big' is a tall tale strongly centered on plot and the three-act structure. The characters have motivations and intentions (to grow up); they exist in a situation that looks and sounds a lot like reality, but where dramatic license or necessity takes over from the 'truth'. 'Awakenings' on the other hand is not a tall tale rather it is based upon a true story. Yet it is based on the three- act structure. In classicism characters are often reformed by their experiences. Dr.
Malcolm Sayer was reformed from an introverted clinical researcher to the point where he could ask a woman out for a date. In 'Awakenings' tight framing is mostly used. This allows for the audience to perceive the prison the patients are trapped in. Throughout the picture there is mostly only two people in the frame (2 S) and a lot of P. O.
V shots, close proxemeties on the part of Sayer. This is probably because of the nature of the medical profession; it is mostly one on one consultation and we must perceive the situation in the eyes of Malcolm. The cameras give many different angles on the same character this is to let the audience develop their own idea on the situation. The close up is prominent especially when the patients are incapacitated, trapped in their death like state. Why? , because the audience is able to look into their minds and wonder if in fact there is life in there, and wonder if they know we are there.
With Leonard Marshall uses profile and full front shots because here one is able to again develop upon the character intimately especially when we notice him look into the mirror and shaving for the first time. The use of color in this film is somewhat restricted. The clinic is for people who are beyond help. They are trapped in the 'Garden' where they are merely fed and watered. The floor is made of black and white checkers and black steel bars cover the windows. Penny has to show this place as a confinement of life and freedom.
There is another side to the color scheme. When the patients 'awaken' they go on a field trip to a Jazz lounge, this place symbolizing life and freedom and happiness is filled with color. As well the patients are out of their drab clothes and are wearing make up and dancing to the songs they left behind so many years ago. In 'Big' loose framing is mostly used. This allows for Tom Hanks' character to move around and do all the physical comedy that is necessary for this part. He must play a child in an adult's body.
Mostly full shot is use because there is so much moving around and in order to give the set the look of being 'Big' and sort of dwarfing Josh Baskin. He is a child in an adult world and we must be reminded of this. There is an abundant use of color. The world of cement and pavement of the city has been thrown out the window and the audience can see the world through a child's eyes. Through profile shots the audience is able to wonder what is going through his mind and hypothesize what he is going to do. Everything is filled with excitement and good nature.
Josh's room filled with a trampoline, a Pepsi machine and an abundance of toys is representative of the world of a child. Penny draws attention to these items by using bright colors. In 'Awakenings's o und is mostly synchronous. The music is played when the band is playing in the club or the music coming from the record player when they are trying to stimulate the patients.
This music is associative. In the case when Sayer was alone or pondering a thought there is non-synchronous music. This music is behind the scenes and its purpose is emotional. Some critics refer to 'Big', as a 'B' movie because at the time Tom Hanks was not a huge star and the cast was relatively unknown. 'Awakenings' on the other hand starred Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, two well-known and respected actors.
This is obviously a step up for Penny Marshall. 'Big' was a lighthearted comedy and 'Awakenings' was an emotional drama. Penny Marshall shifted her level of intensity for this film. As was mentioned before Marshall tended to direct and produce comedies and this drama was a paradigm shift for her that worked out very well with critics. There does not seem to be any pattern of collaboration with other artists within her films.
A different composer writes each music score and her films each have their own unique cast of actors (with exception to Tom Hanks in 'A League of their Own') and actresses. Her ideology displayed in each film is different; there are differences in point of view between 'Big', 'Awakenings', 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' etc. As there exists differences in each film there exists a difference in success with audiences and critics. 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' had difficulties, 'Big' and 'Awakenings' were a success with audiences and critics as exemplified by its multiple nominations by the Academy. Penny is still relatively new at directing feature film and has not carved her own 'niche', such as Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee has. She uses a wide range of actors, sources and ideologies but she sticks to her classical ways in genre and directing style.
The best thing about her movies is the fact that they are enjoyable, and is that not what we are looking for anyway?