“I know the goods when I see the goods, and she’s the goods.” That’s what a baseball scout tells Kit (Lori Petty), a scrappy underdog ballplayer in the 1940s. He’s talking about Kit’s older sister Dottie (Geena Davis), a better ballplayer with an even temper who is better-loved by their parents and, by general consensus, prettier and more put-together than her sibling. It’s odd to consider, 30 years later, that Dottie is the principal heroine and point-of-view character for A League of Their Own. Kit seems like the more natural choice; she vibrates with relatable want, while levelheaded Dottie doesn’t struggle much with her natural abilities.
Casting a movie star as Dottie and turning her into the lead should make matters worse: On paper, this is a character who seems tailor-made to communicate the rarified movie-star experience of being the most talented, lovable and modest person in the room. If Dottie avoids that trap, it’s not for lack of glamor: Davis, with shining hair and occasionally, elegantly smudged cheekbones, looks poised even when she’s dueling over batting signals with her lush of a team manager, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks). By all rights, Kit’s resentments should be our own.
Somehow, Dottie isn’t an insufferable character, or even an unlikable one, and a lot of that hangs on Davis’ performance. She makes it clear how Dottie’s sense of propriety—so maddening to Kit—is a crucial shield, keeping baseball from breaking up the marriage and future family she also desires. It’s a tricky, bittersweet portrait of subsumed passion that finds the nuance in Penny Marshall’s broader comedy of smart-mouthed scouts and quirky, single-trait teammates. Marshall directed A League of Their Own into a winning crowdpleaser; Davis made it feel like an old classic even before it turned into one.
Similarly, 1992 has morphed from a throwback year for Davis into one worthy of nostalgia; in retrospect, it was maybe her last year as a top-tier star. Coming off an Oscar nomination earlier that year (and a win a few years before that), she toplined League, a major hit set in the 1940s; and Hero, a major flop with a ‘40s sensibility. Hero has her playing Gayle Gayley, another woman at the top of her field, this one thrown into a Frank Capra-style dual assignment: Getting a story and falling in love. When her flight goes down in the middle of a city, she’s saved by local lowlife Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman); through an unlikely series of events, gentle homeless man John Bubber (Andy Garcia) takes the credit and, through her coverage, Gayle falls for him.
Hero doesn’t quite turn Geena Davis into the neo-screwball heroine of our dreams; the movie is more interested in imitating Capra’s Meet John Doe than his It Happened One Night or Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. Davis projects the intelligence of a fast-talking career gal, but the movie cedes most of its comedy to Hoffman—which leaves Davis to, again, navigate the tricky emotional center of an old-fashioned picture, wondering (from a different angle) whether the profession she loves may be interfering with the rest of her life. What’s so striking about Davis in both of her 1992 movies is how casually, elegantly and sincerely she’s able to play characters who are supposed to be more or less the best, without a hint of self-aggrandizement.
It’s this glamorously vulnerable quality that makes her feel like such a classic movie star. In some ways, Davis in 1992 could be seen as an amalgamation of early ’90s female stardom: The glam of Michelle Pfeiffer, the girl-next-door approachability of Julia Roberts, the businesslike professionalism of Demi Moore. But looking back, Davis is less yoked to that particular era, and more like an echo of a past that was already distant at the time. Her hairstyle and screwball-adjacent smarts might recall Carole Lombard, though a 1992 Vanity Fair profile made that comparison more for her style (a “cross between Tyrone Power and Carole Lombard,” per Isaac Mizrahi), while describing her physicality and personality as “Rita Hayworth on steroids.”
Yet, there isn’t much Hayworth in these 1992 projects, which both have a certain primness about matters of sex and also in general. Both Gayle and Dottie pride themselves on a no-nonsense clarity. Even toward the end of League, as Dottie leaves baseball for good, she plays her love of the game close to the vest, dismissing it as full of indignities and physical discomforts, emphasizing how she’ll miss her sister—giving Kit the emotional catharsis she needs, and placing that (along with her loyalty to her sweet husband, played by go-to ‘90s milquetoast Bill Pullman) above her athletic glory. It’s a touching scene not just for what Dottie reveals, but what she keeps to herself; the same goes for her friendship with Hanks’ Dugan, which plenty of movies would have turned into a full-on romance, or at least a more direct flirtation. (In fact, a deleted scene does have Jimmy and Dottie kiss, after discussing that very reticence to admit how much she loves the game. This scene has a few lovely moments, but cutting it was the right call; it throws off the movie’s balance even more than it throws Dottie off her game.)
Davis herself may have had a similar ability to keep Hollywood at arm’s length—or at least to step away when, just a few years later, it no longer seemed to love her back. She took another shot at retro-screwball with 1994’s Speechless (it should have worked better than it did), and then aimed her star power in a different direction: As an action heroine in a pair of movies directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin.
Those films required a different sort of withholding—the more traditionally masculine interplay between kicking ass and showing a modicum of human sensitivity. The Long Kiss Goodnight makes the female version of that interplay into its text, with Davis as a domesticated woman who uncovers an amnesia-concealed past as a ruthless assassin. Despite a Shane Black screenplay with better dialogue than some of her comedies, audiences did not seem to connect with this struggle, nor with the notoriously expensive flop Cutthroat Island.
This was also around the time Davis turned 40, and she’s been vocal about how her long break from film was precipitated by a drop-off in the interesting, worthwhile roles she was constantly offered in her 30s. There’s a lingering retro sensibility we could have done without: The feeling that by midlife, actresses should willingly step back, not unlike Dottie in A League of Their Own. Davis so perfectly evoked old-fashioned, self-possessed stardom in 1992 that Hollywood could only react by hastening her exit (which, at the time, meant mom roles and network TV shows), rather than handing her a great neo-noir or romantic drama. A League of Their Own and Hero attempt to reconcile their respective heroines’ natural best-in-the-biz talent with their conflicted inner lives. Davis, for all her success, was not always afforded such grace.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.