Geena Davis plays to win
Even Geena Davis’ voice is fun. Tomboyishly deep, lisping slightly on the s’s, it can modulate within a single sentence from 15-year-old squeal to sober contralto — just as she herself seems to shift, in any given moment, from all- American gawky teenager to grown-up executive and World-Famous Person. Right now she’s talking about a subject close to her heart: not a political cause, not a project in development. Geena Davis is talking about summer vacation. ”That’s my favorite feeling,” she says, school-girlishly excited. ”I have a job, but it doesn’t start for a long time, I have the whole summer to just cool out and play and stuff. And the closer it gets, I realize nothin’s gonna fit in the middle here, and I’m safe, and I don’t have to worry until the fall.”
We’re in the office of Davis’ production company, Genial Pictures, on the lot at Fox. The Genial boss is leaning back behind a multicolored nouveau-retro boomerang-top desk, clad from head to toe — a breathtaking distance (six feet even) — in a pale orange pantsuit and matching moccasins. Her hair, too, is orangish. Over on the wall, above the mint-condition, green and cream ’50s-style Columbia bicycle that Davis has been known to pedal to the commissary, hangs a Spanish-language poster for La Mosca (The Fly). ”Tengan miedo,” it reads, in a translation of that movie’s famous ”Be afraid” tag line. ”Tengan mucho miedo.”
What Davis is talking about is the perfect summer, the one nobody, not even movie stars, gets to have very often. There she was last July, all set to relax before starting Hero in the fall, when Debra Winger dropped out of the starring role in A League of Their Own in — according to its director, Penny Marshall — a contract dispute. Suddenly Davis got tapped to walk in and save the big game.
”I get this call — ‘Can you come like tomorrow to Chicago and start this movie?’ I hate making decisions under the gun,” she says. ”But it really was a situation where I had to make up my mind fast, and I did. It just seemed like somethin’ to jump into.”
The myth that stars are coddled creatures, rather than the sharp-eyed entrepreneurs they need to be these days, should have died with the studio system. Still, Davis’ innate sunniness (she greeted a visitor to her office, an utter stranger, with the kind of grin and energetic wave most people reserve for old friends), combined with her long-stemmed voluptuousness, drop-dead jawline, and kid-sister dentition, tend to make people think she’s this big, gorgeous, kooky chick.
But clearly there’s more to Davis than the obvious. She seems to live in that magical territory between self-importance (she has none) and self- effacement (it’s hard to have any when you look that way). Reports had her reading Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady on the set of League. Odds are she’d no sooner apologize for this than for the lollapalooza of a dress she wore to the Oscars in March. ”I wanted to look great,” she says. ”I wanted to wear something really original and fun, and be a little more daring than I’ve been other years. Everybody’s become so conservative about what they wear. It really made me feel like, ‘Oh, f— this — who wants to be safe?’ So whatever tiny way I can wipe that out…”
”Not so tiny,” I say.
”In whatever big flouncy way I can do it!” She laughs her big, all-out laugh. ”I always feel stupid getting into a defense of whether I’m kooky or not,” she says, sweetly wary. ”Like the fact that I was in a movie called The Fly, to many people, adds to that. But in fact, my character was incredibly serious and straightforward — I was the sort of center of the maelstrom. And I think that’s been my role in a lot of movies.
”I’d rather play a really interesting character who happens to be dead or in love with an alien than somebody’s boring wife or something. I’d rather do the fun stuff.”
A League of Their Own is, on the face of it, precisely that: fun stuff. A summer movie. On the other hand, with its last-minute cast changes and a budget that bloated to nearly $50 million — Davis’ share was a reported $2.5 million — it bears a certain amount of pressure. ”It has to be a hit,” Davis says. ”There’s no other option.”
At this point, League is looking like a stand-up triple. And no one involved is standing higher than Davis. As Dottie Hinson, the catcher and team captain of the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, she’s the serene center of this amiably unkempt movie. Her performance is her most consistently serious so far, one that seems to herald a new breadth for the 35-year-old star.
”Dottie, on paper, was this extremely competent, nonneurotic character — one I can’t identify with at all,” says Marshall, in broad Bronx tones. ”A symbol of quiet dignity. Geena became that symbol. Because she came so late to the movie, I think she had to concentrate extra hard — she had to learn the role and she had to learn to play baseball. She also has this very feminine quality that I like. So I saw all that and used it.”
It wasn’t easy. For starters, the legendarily insecure Marshall had never worked on such a scale before. Then there was the large cast and a succession of 14-hour, 100-degree days on baseball fields in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky.
”I remember the first day they were filming me hitting,” Davis says. ”Penny was pacing up and down, smoking and eating a hot dog at the same time, muttering, ‘Hit the ball, hit the ball, put me out of my misery.”’ Her imitation of Marshall’s nasal, weary whine is note-perfect. ”I said, ‘Thanks, Penny — that’s real helpful.”’
Did the long, hot days lead to personality clashes? ”I love Tom,” Davis says of costar Hanks. ”He’s very loose, very playful and experimental. We were in synch in the fooling-around department.”
And what of Madonna, whose casting in a small part brought a gale of publicity to the project? Davis is diplomatic. ”We got along very well when we were working,” she says, ”but we didn’t spend any off-time together. There were two makeup trailers, and you’d spend 2 1/2 hours in there every morning, so you’d get to know the people in your trailer very well. And she wasn’t in my trailer. Maybe that was it.”
”Surprisingly enough, except for those who passed out, everyone got along great,” Marshall says. ”They became friends — it was like going away to camp. Anyway, for them to bitch about it being hot wouldn’t have felt right. After all, these women they were playing did it for real.”
Watch Dottie’s intent squint while she’s standing at bat and you’ll understand something of the true essence of the woman who plays her. ”When I show up on the first day,” Davis says, ”I want to be so prepared that if nobody told me anything, I could still do great.”
We’re having lunch in a quiet corner at a Beverly Hills hotel. ”I didn’t like to talk to a lot of people about what I wanted to do when I was in high school,” she says. ”But I just knew.” Davis laughs — whether out of delight, or discomfort at the depth of her ambition, or both; it’s hard to tell. ”There was one person I trusted — my music teacher,” she says. ”I kind of asked him — ‘I want to study acting, where do you go?’ He very confidently said, ‘Oh, Boston University has this great acting program.’ I don’t think I researched it any further than that.
”I’ve always sort of operated under the assumption that the right thing will happen, you know? That I have really good intuition, and if something sounds right to me, I should do it. And I do, and it kinda works out.”
Leo Peduzzi, then the high school music teacher in Davis’ hometown of Wareham, Mass., near Cape Cod (where she once placed fourth out of six entrants in the Miss Cranberry Bowl contest), speaks of a girl who was a natural in every way: a superb musician on piano, flute, and organ, and a member of the Madrigal Choir. Davis, the second child in a devout, middle-class family (her father was an engineer, her mother a teaching assistant), ”was very popular, very outgoing,” Peduzzi says. ”A leader. Her yearbook entry said, ‘Going to Hollywood to be a star.”’
First stop was New York. After graduating from B.U. in 1979, Davis did some modeling for the Zoli Agency, then tried out for a movie called Tootsie. ”Geena just stood out,” Dustin Hoffman says. ”I saw her audition tape, and I said, ‘Yeah. She’s terrific.’ She was surprisingly natural and unaffected. She just didn’t seem nervous.”
”We were shooting one of the dressing-room scenes,” Davis recalls. ”And Dustin loves to improvise and go off the script, and it was all just happening easily. (Director Sydney Pollack) finally said, ‘Come here.’ He said, ‘You’re not nervous? Did you think about that you’re in this big movie, and that’s Dustin Hoffman, and this is your first part, and you’re standing there in your underwear?’ He just was curious about it. I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not.’ And I wasn’t. It felt right.”
In the hotel lobby, after lunch, Davis remembers another pivotal moment. ”This is where I came to tea with Ridley (Scott) when I was trying out for Thelma & Louise,” she says. ”I wanted that so bad — I bugged him for months. I’d written down all these reasons I’d be great as Thelma. And we sat down, and he said, ‘What would you think about playing Louise?’ I was like, ‘Uh-sure.”’ Whether Scott was being cute, or just trying to keep her alert to her possibilities, Thelma it was. The movie, of course, did demonstrably more for Davis’ career than even the 1989 Oscar she won for The Accidental Tourist, putting her on the cover of Time (with Susan Sarandon) and making her a household face. Later in the afternoon, in a kind of New Age/hippie store along the beach in Venice, two young women come up and say, ”Hi, Geena, we’re the real Thelma and Louise!” Davis’ polite, practiced response gives the impression that this has happened once or twice before.
As the customers gawk and the proprietor fawns, she stands patiently at the cash register with her purchases. Suddenly her eye is caught by a display of buttons with cute slogans. She points at one of them. ”I should get that one,” she says. ”Stop Me Before I Marry Again,” it reads. Davis, who later tells me, almost inaudibly, ”I’m dating,” has been married twice, once to New York restaurateur Richard Emmolo and then to Jeff Goldblum, her costar in the vampire comedy Transylvania 6-5000, The Fly, and Earth Girls Are Easy.
Goldblum recalls that when they first met (on location in Yugoslavia for Transylvania 6-5000), ”I thought she was strikingly adorable and cute-looking. And sweetly shy. Then after a while I realized how smart she was, and it was thrilling.”
And now? ”We have a nice friendship,” Goldblum says. ”A supportive, fun relationship. We’re gonna see Batman tonight.”
There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than riding around in a limo with Geena Davis. (”I always shop in a stretch,” she says, rolling her eyes.) We had initially made a date to play miniature golf, but she has errands that just won’t wait. First stop is a riding-equipment store, where she’s fitted for boots and jodhpurs for her next project, in which she hopes to play the British aviatrix and writer Beryl Markham (West With the Night). In Hero, coming this fall, Davis is a tough TV newswoman; Stephen Frears directs and Dustin Hoffman — full circle! — and Andy Garcia costar.
”I still see a kind of humility in her,” Hoffman says. ”An attitude of ‘I’m still a beginner’ that you find with the better actors, people like Ralph Richardson. Only now she has the confidence to be able to ask questions, to disagree when she disagrees.”
Davis reclines in the limo seat, her legs giving practical meaning to the term stretch. I wonder aloud if, while filming her catcher scenes in League, she was ever scared of the hardball. ”I realized before I started anything that that was the thing to overcome,” she says. ”And I realized it’s just something you have to tough out. Because, you know, it’s not gonna kill you. And it’s much better to be lookin’ at it than looking away.” She laughs. ”I think in all of life, that’s a good philosophy — it’s better to know what’s coming.”
She gazes out the window for a moment. ”Sorry about the miniature golf,” she says.
”Some other time.”
She considers the possibility, smiles. Fun is important too. ”Yeah,” she says.