Tom Hanks has been so successful for so long that it is easy to forget that he has had some not-so-great periods in his career. While it is fun to joke about his wacky, not-well-aging hijinks with Peter Scolari in Bosom Buddies or the oddball roles he occasionally takes like as Evil Colonel Sanders in The Ladykillers, he is mostly thought of as the box office-dominating multiple Academy Award-winner that he is. But just like anyone, Hanks has gone through some rough periods, which is what happened to him after his breakout success as a leading man in 1988’s Big (or as we like to call it, Something Funny Happened on the Way to Zoltar). After that movie established him as a movie star, he had a solid run of forgettable star vehicles, flops, and one of the biggest cinematic debacles in history. He needed a home run, and he got it in A League of Their Own. The 1992 sports drama-comedy is currently streaming for free on Free Vee (formerly IMDBTv).
In 1992, Tom Hanks was at a bit of a crossroads. His romantic comedy collaborations with Meg Ryan had not yet come along to cement him as one of America’s most heartthrob Dad-types. His historic back-to-back Oscar wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump were still in the future. His crowning glory as a cowboy doll with a snake in its boot was still just a gleam in some animator’s eye. Prior to A League of His Own, he had starred in three solid years of largely undistinguished movies. For a star trying to rise to the top of the Hollywood ladder, three years is a long time. He had followed big with Punchline (a barely remembered standup comic drama), a Joe Dante cult film called The ‘Burbs, a bizarre magic-realist adventure comedy titled Joe Versus the Volcano, and Bonfire of the Vanities, a Brian De Palma flop so notorious a book was written just to examine what could have happened. His only moderate financial success of the period was Turner & Hooch, a movie in which he played second fiddle to a dog. So, not great for Tom Hanks.
Smartly enough, he got back together with director Penny Marshall, who he had worked with in his last hit Big. She had been inspired by a documentary about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League by Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson; the AAGPBL had existed from 1943 to 1954 and was the first women’s professional league sports in the United States. Marshall contacted Candaele and Wilson to work on a fictionalized story about the league, pairing them with established writers Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz. Mandel and Ganz had worked with Tom Hanks on the Ron Howard film Splash, and at some point, the actor got brought on board. Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, comedian Rosie O’Donnell, and Penny Marshall’s older brother, filmmaker Gary Marshall were all cast, and it was a go.
A League of Their Own is a delight from beginning to end. In 128 minutes, the movie manages to tell a story of sibling rivalry and affection, the effects of World War II on daily life in America, sports comedy, institutional sexism and misogyny, alcoholism, and the single largest instance of Tom Hanks urinating yet committed to film. You never know, he could break his record. Hanks stars as a washed-up, boozed-up former baseball player named Jimmy Dugan (reportedly based on real-life athletes Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson) recruited by Gary Marshall’s chocolate magnate (very much inspired by chewing gum/sports magnate Philip K. Wrigley) to lead the Rockford Peaches. Geena Davis is the star player/catcher and older sister of Lori Petty’s pitcher, with their rivalry driving the central conflict.
The movie is one of the rare comedy dramas to give equal weight to both. A League of Their Own can play Tom Hanks’ inebriated urination as a joke, but also makes it clear that this is a depressed man who destroyed his own career with substance abuse. There are plenty of jokes at the expense of sexist men getting their comeuppance by the Rockford Peaches, but it does not pretend that they are going to be rewarded after men come back to war to play professional sports again. A League of Their Own was hit at the box office, only barely taking second place to the behemoth of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns in its first week, and beating it in the second. It was warmly received by critics and has become a beloved sleepover film in the years since. And it gave Tom Hanks the lifeline he would need to bring him back to the top and to one of the most successful Hollywood careers of all time.