There’s only one thing tougher than making a good sports movie: making a good women’s sports movie. In fact, the genre was all but unheard-of — and certainly not considered big box office — until last summer, when Penny Marshall got a hit with A League of Their Own, the story of the real women’s baseball league that flourished during World War II. Hardly a perfect film, League nonetheless represents a breakthrough in women’s sports movies: It’s a celebration of sport for sport’s sake.
Traditionally, women’s sports movies have been more about women and their need for romance than about sports. In the lively comedy Pat and Mike, for example, protofeminist Katharine Hepburn plays a phys-ed teacher who turns professional athlete — and falls in love with her worldly manager (Spencer Tracy). Pat and Mike is notable for featuring such actual female sports stars as Babe Didrickson Zaharias and Betty Hicks, and for displaying Hepburn’s own athletic prowess. Still, its most memorable moment is Tracy’s famous description of Hepburn: ”Not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.”
Indeed, even some biographical films about great female sports figures have given the athlete’s personal life more screen time than her athletic achievements. Take Wilma, the mediocre made-for-TV movie about runner Wilma Rudolph, winner of three Olympic gold medals. It works so hard to explain Wilma’s (Shirley Jo Finney) relationship with her supportive mother (Cicely Tyson) and devoted boyfriend (Denzel Washington) that it completely skips her bronze medal-winning performance in the 1956 Australian Olympic Games — an ironic omission considering the film’s writer-director is Bud Greenspan, who created the landmark documentary of the 1984 Olympics, 16 Days of Glory.
No such mistake in Personal Best, screenwriter Robert Towne’s controversial directorial debut. This fictional account of two female pentathletes (Mariel Hemingway and real-life track star Patrice Donnelly), who are also lovers, is loaded with scene after scene of long runs, high jumps, and swift hurdles. It also contains fairly explicit sexual encounters and several overly emotional scenes as the runners build up to a showdown at the 1980 Olympic tryouts, ultimately moot since the U.S. boycotted those games. Personal Best tries to be a probing study of the balance between an athlete’s need to win and a woman’s need for love. But despite its naturalistic style, Best reveals not enough.
Being the best among both men and women is the groundbreaking subject of Heart Like a Wheel, the true story of championship race-car driver Shirley ”Cha-Cha” Muldowney’s struggle to be accepted in a formerly all-male sport. Although Bonnie Bedelia gives a powerful performance as Muldowney, the story loses its drive halfway through when it downshifts its focus from her fast-track career to her tumultuous personal and professional relationship with fellow racer Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges).
By contrast, the women athletes in A League of Their Own are not out to prove they are better players than men; they just want to play. Even if it means wearing short skirts instead of real uniforms, giving out kisses to men who snag foul balls, and catching pop-ups while doing splits — all to boost attendance and keep the league alive. The movie’s heroine is beautiful Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), a natural leader and a superbly talented player. Plucked from her dairy farm in Oregon by a wise-cracking scout (Jon Lovitz in a hilarious turn), she and her competitive kid sister, Kit (Lori Petty), travel to Chicago to be among the first women ever to play professional baseball.
The movie (which is available in two versions, one a letterboxed edition that preserves its sporty cinematography) gets a bit maudlin in the final innings as Dottie and Kit, who end up on different teams, fight out their sibling rivalry on the baseball field. And the strong ensemble cast — which includes Rosie O’Donnell as a tough-talking infielder, Madonna as a man-crazy outfielder, and Tom Hanks as a down-and-out ex-pro who’s reluctantly reinvigorated by coaching a woman’s team — is often underplayed.
But on average, those errors hardly matter. What emerges, with the help of fast-paced, hard-hitting montages and a touching closing sequence of real-life women players being honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame, is a winner of a movie, one filled with a love of sport unlike any seen before in a women’s sports picture. It’s an accomplishment that puts A League of Their Own in a league by itself. A League of Their Own: B+ Pat and Mike: B+ Wilma: D+ Personal Best: C Heart Like a Wheel: B