Summer of ’92: Boys and Girls

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Welcome back to Summer of 92, the summer series in which I take a look at the movies released in 1992, also known as the year I was born. If you want an overview of what I’ve covered so far, you can click HERE. Otherwise, keep reading. 

“You couldn’t have picked two more different movies” said a friend to whom I told I was writing this article. He was probably right. The dark and merciless drama of Glengarry Glen Ross is as far as you can get from the warm nostalgia and the friendly comedy of A League of Their Own. But just as my friend quickly realized, there is one obvious similarity to both movies, and one that makes all the differences between them connect neatly and easily into a wonderful comparison: they are the same while being opposites. Glengarry Glen Ross is about being a man. A League of Their Own is about being a woman.

Let’s start with Glengarry Glen Ross, which is based on the Pulitzer-winning play by David Mamet. Now, if you’re at all familiar with Mamet’s work, then you know that a lot of what he writes about has to do with masculinity. This piece, which features practically an all-male cast, is not only about being a man, but about the role and image of men in our society. The movie focuses on a group of real estate agents desperate to sell as many pieces of worthless land after they are informed that the bottom two sellers will be fired. The movie features a cast of all-star actors (including Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, and Alec Baldwin, who is the centerpiece in one of the movie’s most famous scenes), but the two main characters of the story are Shelley Levine (Jack Lemmon) and Ricky Roma (Al Pacino).

We are first introduced to Shelley, who is the oldest worker in the agency, but is having a major slump as far as selling real estate is concerned. We also learn that he is having financial trouble, apparently being unable to pay expenses related to his daughter (possibly her college tuition). Shelley is stuck on his sales, because he only has bad leads, but he won’t be given any good leads unless he starts selling. We meet Shelley as a desperate man, and he only grows more desperate during the movie’s first half. We see him make all kinds of pathetic attempts to sell a piece of real estate, going as far as to visit a possible client unannounced. We see very few glimpses of Ricky Roma in the first half, although a lot of time is spent saying how good he is at closing deals. When we finally have a full scene with him he is drinking with a man (Jonathan Pryce), and by the calm and powerful way of his words, we have no doubt that he will have sold a piece of land by the end of the night.

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Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino and Ed Harris in Glengarry Glen Ross.

The second half is when we really get a glimpse into the mind of Ricky Roma, and the set of ruthless skills that led him to be such a successful salesman. He is a master manipulator, coming up with elaborate fantasy scenarios to make a sale. Usually, when we see this kind of crazy role-playing games in movies, they’re played for laughs, as desperate characters turn to desperate measures to get what they want (think of the gangster dressing up as women in Some Like It Hot, or the premise of Weekend at Bernie’s). In this case, though, the role play is used to show how cold and effective Ricky Roma’s sell tactics can be. The movie argues that he is the man that we value the most as a society. A man who can get shit done, no matter the consequences. He comes into the office, and he has, for the lack of a better term, the biggest dick in the room. He even gets to insult his boss (Kevin Spacey), just because he is the one that brings in the money. He has the power.

We are, of course, supposed to compare Ricky Roma and Shelley Levine. Roma is the successful one, Levine is in dire straits. The easy comparison would be to think of Roma as the ruthless man that is beloved by everyone, and Levine the good man that is pushed down by the world. But things are more complicated than that. The most interesting thing about Glengarry Glen Ross is that it doesn’t feature easy answers. We sympathize with desperate Levine, but he proves to be just as dishonest as Roma. Meanwhile, we think of Roma as a shark, but he also shows a certain level of loyalty for his co-workers. At the end of the day, these are just men trying to buy themselves some dignity. They’re only as valuable as the money they produce, and if they produce enough they’ll be in a position where, like Roma, they can do whatever they want. Not everyone can get there, though, as Alec Baldwin’s character explains in his famous speech, you are either a millionaire or you are nobody.

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Jack Lemmon is desperate in Glengarry Glen Ross

This dark representation of manhood stands in sharp contrast to the female relationships at the center of A League of Their Own, which is understandable, since one is a dark drama and the other a comedy. Anyway, the main relationship in A League of Their Owseems to be the one between sisters Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty). I says seems to, because is the relationship with which we open and close the movie, but one that gets sidelined in the middle part. That, however, is a product of the movie’s spattered screenplay -by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mendel- which is interested in a lot of subplots throughout the movie. We meet Dottie and Kit as workers in an Oregon dairy farm. It’s World War II and the boys are over fighting in Europe, which brings to life the idea of creating a female baseball league in order to keep having games during the wartime. A scout sees one of the sisters’ game and wants to recruit Dottie. However, Dottie won’t go if the scout doesn’t take Kit too.

That’s the start of a light rivalry between the sisters. Dottie is apparently perfect in every way. She’s a great payer, she’s beautiful, and she’s all no-nonsense about everything that goes on. She even takes the reins of the team when they have to deal with drunk coach Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks). On the other hand, Kit is a spunky girl who has had to live in the shadow of her sister her whole life. The fact that Dottie is so stern and rightful make her not the most interesting character, but it does help that she is surrounded with colorful characters. In the last moments, the movie does go back to Dottie and Kit, but while it works relatively well, it is not quite the poignant moment it wishes it had been. The real emotional impact of the movie isn’t really the relationship between the sisters, but the sisterhood that emerges out of all the women in the team (including Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell) coming together to play baseball.

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Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna play baseball

It is, of course, a story about how the call to take action during World War II awakened a strong spirit of fortitude in women. A spirit that they were asked to give up once the boys came back home. The movie’s most effective moments are those in which it uses this baseball league as a metaphor to show what it’s like to be a woman in the world. The men responsible for this league, for example, are not only looking for good players, but for pretty ones that will look good on camera and bring people to the seats. There is also a scene in which the players are presented with their uniforms, which are designed to be alluring and revealing more than effective sportswear. It’s the relationship between these women, and their collective sharing of a memory of agency and independence that pulls the heartstrings in the movie’s final moments, during which, I must admit, I cried like a freaking baby.

Since we’re on the subject of crying, I can’t write about A League of Their Own without mentioning Tom Hanks’s performance as Jimmy Dugan, perhaps the funniest of his career, and one of his best and most charismatic. His speech about how there is “no crying in baseball” is one of the movie’s most memorable scenes. I’ve said before how I’ve had trouble with Hanks as an actor, but the more I watch of his the more I realize that my problem is with his performance in Forrest Gump and not with his work as a whole.

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A drunk Tom Hanks tries to sleep it off in A League of Their Own

What can we take out of these different views on men and women? Well, the more I think about it, the less I think of the movies as being about “men” and “women” (although they clearly are), but as being about people with and without power. In the case of Glengarry Glen Ross it’s a bunch of competitive men, using their most basic and primal instincts to become the alpha male in the office. A look at masculinity as raw strength. Meanwhile, A League of Their Own, uses the story of the women’s baseball league to advocate for a feminism and girl power. It is, after all, a story about taking agency and reaching a goal. One is the story of an old Goliath crumbling, the other about a young David emerging.

Next Week’s Double Feature: The Last of the Mohicans and Unforgiven

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