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‘A League of Their Own’ Marked the End of the Goofy Tom Hanks Era

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This Friday, Amazon Prime Video unveils its episodic series remake of A League of Their Own, Penny Marshall’s beloved film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which took the field in 1943 to give fans games to watch while the men were off fighting World War II. The 1992 movie, starring Geena Davis and Madonna, was one of the first female-driven sports vehicles, and a huge hit that summer. (Plus, Madonna’s soundtrack contribution, the ballad “This Used to Be My Playground,” went to No. 1.) But A League of Their Own is also notable for something that’s less well-remembered: It marked the end of the Goofy Tom Hanks era.

The film is largely focused on the women ballplayers for the Rockford Peaches — especially superstar catcher Dottie (Davis) and her insecure younger sister Kit (Lori Petty), who’s always standing in her shadow — but a crucial supporting character is Hanks’ Jimmy, a onetime power-hitting dynamo in the majors whose career capsized due to alcoholism. Now a washout, Jimmy is broke and desperate — and still a bit of a drunk — so he reluctantly agrees to coach the Peaches, even though he thinks the whole idea of the A.A.G.P.B.L. is ridiculous, spending most of the early part of the season snoozing during games. But just you wait: In due course, this incorrigible oaf will sober up and come to appreciate these women’s talent and heart.

If you watch A League of Their Own now, it may be a shock to see this Tom Hanks: a broad, somewhat hammy actor who bugs his eyes out and yells to emphasize a punchline. But that might be because you’ve forgotten the Hanks who was a rising movie star in the 1980s. That younger, more impish Hanks wasn’t the same one who went on to win back-to-back Oscars in the early 1990s with Philadelphia and Forrest Gump — the guy who would soon be unofficially anointed America’s Most Trusted Actor®. No, the Hanks of the ‘80s started off on the freewheeling sitcom Bosom Buddies, eventually making his name portraying zany, exasperated characters in films like Splash and The ‘Burbs. Back then, he specialized in wild cards and scamps.

But it was clear Hanks had loftier aspirations, and with 1988’s Big, also directed by Marshall, he signed up for a fantasy comedy-drama where he got to play a literal big kid, albeit one who revealed a sensitive, romantic side. Big earned Hanks his first Oscar nomination, proof that the industry saw him as an actor with chops. That said, his career was still very much in flux: He was wasting his time with dopey buddy-cop flicks such as Turner & Hooch while also flailing in would-be prestige projects like the 1990 critical and commercial debacle The Bonfire of the Vanities. In the midst of this came A League of Their Own, which would be the last instance of Hanks doing something so silly and unsubtle for a while. Soon after, he’d be focused on more serious fare.

Which isn’t to suggest A League of Their Own is fluff: Although the movie over-invests in its feel-good tone, it’s a moving crowd-pleaser that tackles sexism and the evolution of women’s societal roles without being heavy-handed. But the film can also be jokey and strained, and one of the chief culprits, surprisingly, is Hanks. 

For those who haven’t seen the movie recently — or even if you’ve never seen it — you probably immediately think of Jimmy’s oft-quoted moment in which he chews out one of his players, Evelyn (Bitty Schram), for messing up in the field, prompting her to start weeping and him to yell, “There’s no crying in baseball!” It’s a funny, iconic scene, but it also illustrates the slightly over-the-top performance Hanks gives. To be fair, that’s largely the fault of screenwriting team Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who conceive Jimmy as a one-note lout. Still, particularly in retrospect, it’s deeply strange to see such a venerable A-lister doing shtick-y comic relief. Hanks play Jimmy like a stabler, more civilized version of Bill Murray’s Caddyshack groundskeeper Carl —  a knowingly cartoonish portrait of the clichéd ball-busting manager who, deep down, really is a good guy. 

“Hanks play Jimmy like a stabler, more civilized version of Bill Murray’s Caddyshack groundskeeper Carl —  a knowingly cartoonish portrait of the clichéd ball-busting manager who, deep down, really is a good guy.”

But even though Jimmy is lazily constructed, Hanks does ultimately locate the character’s humanity, especially in A League of Their Own’s second half as the coach starts bonding with his players. There’s a growing mutual respect between Jimmy and the no-nonsense Dottie, who pushes him to snap out of his self-pitying downward spiral. Their scenes are some of the best in the whole movie — and near the end, when Jimmy gives Dottie a tough-love speech once she considers leaving the team to reunite with her returned-home-from-the-war husband (Bill Pullman), Hanks brings the kind of grounded, grownup emotion that would in short order land him Academy Awards. That’s the Hanks we now see all the time, and A League of Their Own contains some early glimpses of the reliable, endlessly endearing Hollywood institution he’d become.

Truth is, Hanks is actually barely in the movie, although it’s an indication of Hollywood’s eternal gender inequality that he, nonetheless, was top-billed among the cast. About to turn 36 when A League of Their Own opened on July 1, 1992, Hanks was getting ready for a major career pivot. Gone were the crazy, immature young dudes of Bachelor Party and Dragnet — up ahead was the thoughtful romantic leading man of Sleepless in Seattle. Then came Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away. He’d stop giving such animated performances — except, of course, when he was literally animated (as Woody in Toy Story movies). He’d also cut loose whenever Lorne Michaels called him to host SNL — David Pumpkins, anyone? — but on the silver screen, the goofball was replaced by the everyman: a new iteration of Jimmy Stewart, decent and earnest and aw-shucks inspirational. 

Last year, when asked by Bill Simmons to name his favorite films he’s made, Hanks cited A League of Their Own, mostly because he got to play baseball all summer and hang out with his family. (That does sound pretty great.) Occasionally, Hanks will still let his impishness out: Think of his gonzo multiple roles in Cloud Atlas or his enthusiastically accented Colonel Tom Parker in Elvis. But those are the exceptions nowadays. The Tom Hanks who’s been revered for decades is everyone’s ideal dad — heartfelt, genuine, admirable. A League of Their Own is a reminder of the lovable rascal he used to be.

Tim Grierson (@timgrierson) is the senior U.S. critic for Screen International. A frequent contributor to Vulture, Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times, he is the author of seven books, including his most recent, This Is How You Make a Movie. 

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