Like most Englishmen, I know about as much about baseball as the average American knows about cricket. I am also not a great fan of sporting films in general, although there are a number of exceptions. Despite this, however, I generally love baseball films, of which there were a number of good examples in the late eighties and early nineties. ('Eight Men Out', 'Field of Dreams' and 'The Natural' all spring to mind). There is something about the sport that seems to lend itself to the cinema; perhaps British filmmakers should consider making a film about cricket, as the two sports have a lot in common.
During the Second World War many of America's male baseball stars were drafted into the forces, and it appeared that the nation might be deprived of its favourite sport. An entrepreneur therefore had the idea of creating an all-female baseball league. 'A League of their Own' tells the story of some of the women who played in that league.
At the centre of the drama is the rivalry between two sisters, Dottie and Kit, who sign for the same team, the Rockford Peaches. The sisters have contrasting characters. Dottie is the more talented player, but Kit is more aggressive and determined to succeed. Kit's aggression and the sibling rivalry between her and Dottie lead to dissension in the team's dressing room, and Kit is traded to a rival team, the Racine Belles. The climax of the film comes when Rockford and Racine meet in the finals of the league championship, with Kit and Dottie on opposite teams.
The film has some interesting observations about the social values of the era in which it is set. During this period there was a conflict between traditional views of femininity and the need, caused by wartime conditions, for women to take on what had historically been masculine roles. Before the war, there had been only very limited opportunities for women in professional sport; most sports, such as tennis and athletics, in which women were permitted to compete were strictly amateur. During the war, they were allowed to take part, but were still expected to conform to the ideal of being 'ladylike'. In the film, players are selected as much for their sex appeal as for their talent (Ernie Capadino, the cynical, sexist talent scout, wants to leave one player out of the team because he considers her insufficiently glamorous) and they are required to attend a 'charm school' and to conform to a strict code of sexual morality. Dottie and Kit can be seen as representing the two sides of this conflict. For all her talent, Dottie's heart is not really in professional baseball, and her real wish is to return to her old life as a housewife as soon as her husband returns from the war. Kit, on the other hand, is single, and sees the game as a way of escaping from her previously dull existence.
Although Geena Davis was quite good as Dottie, the two best performances came from two actors I had not previously heard of, Jon Lovitz in the cameo role of Ernie Capadino, and Lori Petty as Kit, who brought out the fierce determination and will to win of her character. I am surprised that she has not gone on to become a bigger star than she has. It was interesting to see Madonna (normally found in starring roles) in a supporting role as Mae, one of the Peaches who rebels against the strict moral code.
Tom Hanks stars as Jimmy Dugan, the coach of the Rockford Peaches, in a role created largely because the filmmakers felt that they needed a big male star. Dugan was himself a famous baseball player in his time, but his career was wrecked by his heavy drinking. At the beginning of the film, Dugan is played as a figure of fun, making blunders such as urinating in front of the women, but being too drunk to notice or to care. Later on, Dugan sobers up and develops into a mixture of inspirational coach and dispenser of homespun philosophy along the lines of 'There's no crying in baseball'. At neither stage, however, does the film bring out the genuinely tragic aspects of Dugan's fall from grace as a great, or potentially great, athlete ruined by alcoholism. (One can think of modern parallels such as George Best or Diego Maradona). The actor may be at fault here; during the early part of his career Hanks always seemed a limited actor, convincing in 'Mr Nice Guy' roles but unable to portray more unsympathetic characters. ('Bonfire of the Vanities' being another example).
There were one or two other things about the film that I did not like. I felt we should have seen more of Kit between her transfer to Racine and her reappearance in the finals. The opening and closing scenes, showing a reunion of the surviving players more than forty years later, did not add much to the story. (They did, however, correct the misleading impression given in the rest of the film that women's professional baseball came to an end with the war; in fact, it survived until 1954). Overall, however, this was an entertaining film, well worth watching. 7/10.