Penny Marshall died this week. I liked Penny Marshall. She seemed like the kind of woman who’d be a lot of fun at a party. She was brash and funny. She made a living making movies that made people laugh and cry and feel good about themselves. That’s not easy to do.
I read about Marshall’s death in the Washington Post and I was struck by the way the obit undermined her accomplishments. Was it really necessary to insinuate that Marshall would never have done anything in Hollywood without a hand up from her brother? And was this the time to point out that critics found her films “sentimental and workmanlike”? I get it. There’s no need to paint people as perfect or saintlike. In fact, I’m annoyed by obituaries that make it seem like a person never made a bad decision. But, honestly, if any celebrity deserved an uncomplicated and adulatory obit, isn’t it Penny Marshall?
She was Laverne DeFazio, for heaven’s sake. At a time when every woman on television was either an angelic virgin, an over-the-top sex symbol, or the perfect mother, she played a complicated working woman with a sharp sense of humor and a thirst for cheap beer. She had an overbite and frizzy hair. She laughed too loud and she had a lot of opinions. She wasn’t beautiful by the impossible standards of the day, but there was something beautiful about her.
And I get that her movies were kind of sappy, but they were a smart sort of sappy. She knew how to make audiences laugh and cry in the same scene and she understood how to get actors to deliver the big lines in a big way. Everyone who worked with her said she was great. And people still watch her movies all the time.
I’m sure Garry Marshall was great and I’m sure he played a big role in Penny’s career, but his obituaries didn’t take pains to point out that his work from Happy Days to Pretty Woman portrayed women mostly as sex objects—charming and likable and hopelessly romantic sex objects, but sex objects nonetheless. Nor did they dwell on the sentimentality of his work (Beaches, anyone?). His sister, meanwhile, managed to turn a bit role as Fonzie’s loudmouthed girlfriend into something bigger and more memorable than any other female character from Happy Days fame. Garry may have given her the part, but Penny turned it into a meaty role.
And none of Garry Marshall’s obits mentioned his great fortune at having a younger sister who was willing to take parts in his shows and turn them into something special. Maybe Penny Marshall was just as responsible for Garry Marshall’s success as he was for hers. But you won’t get that impression by reading the obits.
Look, Penny Marshall died successful, beloved, and respected by the people she worked with. She probably wouldn’t give a damn that all the obits start by handing career credit to her older brother. But it bugs the hell out of me.
You made a lot of dreams come true, Penny. Rest in peace.