As the movie turns 25, Davis reflects on representation in film: 'It's time to realize that women are not only horribly neglected, but are the best audience to get now'

By C. Molly Smith
April 13, 2017 at 10:00 AM EDT

Batter up! A League of Their Own is turning 25, and here to reminisce about the beloved classic is star Geena Davis.

Directed by Penny Marshall (Laverne & Shirley, The Odd Couple), the film centers on Dottie (Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty), a pair of pioneering sisters who join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II; they play for the Rockford Peaches and as the games go on, their rivalry builds. Tom Hanks also stars as team manager Jimmy, with Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Reiner, Anne Ramsay, and more as teammates.

The film — which was released on July 1, 1992, and is returning to Blu-ray with a special anniversary edition on April 18 — was a popular and financial success. It has an 84% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes and made more than $132 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. While a number of female-led sports films followed — Bend It Like Beckham, Bring It On, She’s the Man, etc. — A League of Their Own didn’t exactly catalyze major industry change even though, Davis explains, many expected it to at the time.

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Davis would know all about that. She founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which is “the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence content creators and audiences about the importance of eliminating unconditional bias, highlighting gender balance, challenging stereotypes, creating role models, and scripting a wide variety of strong female characters in entertainment and media that targets and influences children ages 11 and under,” according to the institute’s website.

Ahead, Davis — whose other credits include The Fly, Beetlejuice, The Accidental Tourist, and Thelma & Louise — reflects not only on the production process, her baseball skills, and the famous “There’s no crying in baseball scene,” she also hypothesizes why Hollywood dropped the ball with female-led sports films (and frankly, female-led films) and what needs to be done to create a more equal, cinematic landscape. Read on as Davis hits it out of the park across the board.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Going back 25 years, what attracted you to A League of Their Own and what do you recall about the casting process?
GEENA DAVIS: It was incredible. I was so thrilled to be cast and to be part of it, and terrified at the same time because I was supposed to play the best ball player anybody had ever seen and I had never played baseball and really had never learned any sport with a ball. I was so tall in high school. They would beg me to be on the girls’ basketball team, but I said, “I can’t play!” They said, “Who cares! You’re so tall, just stand there.”

So, it was a little daunting. I have a lot of confidence that I can learn things, however, so I was determined that I was going to learn. They had fantastic coaches and, to my amazement, they started saying, “Wow, you have some real untapped athletic ability.” That really changed my life. I then did some other roles where I had to learn sports. Eventually, I took up archery just to see if I could do it and became a semi-finalist in the Olympic trials, so it had a big impact on my life.

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Apparently! Have your baseball skills held up over the years?
I pretty much refuse to play baseball because people think I play that well [laughs] and I do not want to [change] that notion. Especially soon after the movie was made, I got asked, “We’re having some Major League ball players play with some actors who are athletes. Will you come?” I’m like, “You really think I can hit a 90 mile [fastball]. Are you insane? Are you crazy?”

I will say, I was at a Minor League Baseball game in Utah. Zions Bank hosted a fundraiser for my institute and they showed A League of Their Own on the field after the game. They asked me to throw the first pitch, so I got there a little early and asked one of the team members, “Could you throw the ball with me so I can practice?” It was such a crap shoot, but I went out and I nailed it, absolutely nailed it. I was like “Well, see, now you think I really am the real thing.” It was perfect.

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RELATED: Geena Davis says Hollywood hasn’t progressed enough since ‘A League of Their Own’

What stands out about working with Penny and your costars?
I think we all felt like we were in this together. It was a fairly long shoot, but also in the middle of the summer in Indiana where the humidity was like 90 percent. It was 95 every day and we were out on the field mostly, playing. That part of it was a little bit torturous, but we were really bonded. We had so much fun all being together like that. We just got along great.

Tom is pretty much the [nicest] person in the world and makes it very hard for anybody else who’s trying to be nice or to become appreciated for being nice to do so because, how can you compete with Tom? He’s just the best guy, but everybody was wonderful and Rosie was so much fun. She took it upon herself to entertain the extras. The poor extras were mostly townspeople from Evansville, where we were staying. [They’d be] in the stands in the heat with period costumes on and she’d grab a mic and start doing stand up. We had a great time.

NEXT: There is crying in baseball, to great comedic effect… 

It’s interesting that you brought up how nice Tom is because one of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when his character Jimmy yells, “There’s no crying in baseball!” to a sobbing Evelyn (Bitty Schram). Did you have any sense of how iconic that scene would become?
I don’t know that we knew it would become such a huge catchphrase. At least, I don’t think I knew that, but we knew it was hella funny. The way he said it and the way his voice was screeching, like so incredulous. It was classic. It was such a good scene.

RELATED: ‘A League of Their Own’ reunion at Bentonville Film Festival

In a special feature for the 25th anniversary Blu-ray release, you talk about how the film was expected to be a game changer for female-led sports movies and that wasn’t the case. Why do you think the industry failed to capitalize on the momentum of A League of Their Own?
It’s interesting because the press was predicting “This will change everything” because it was really considered quite a big hit. They were predicting, “Now there’s going to be so many female sports movies” and there [weren’t]. It was stunning to me. I had the same experience with Thelma & Louise where everyone was announcing, “This changes everything” and nothing did change. It was very, very eye-opening.

What I perceive to be the reason why it happened is because Hollywood has for so long operated on the firm belief that women will watch men, but men do not want to watch women and therefore, we must make everything about men. Then, one movie flouting that idea doesn’t convince them. Unfortunately, no matter how many movies come out starring women and become huge hits, nothing convinces them. The press, in a subtle way, stunts progress by announcing “This changes everything” whenever a movie comes out starring women. It happened when The Hunger Games came out. So many times it’s happened and it never has [changed].

In fact, the ratio of male to female characters has been just about the same since 1946, so what needs to happen and what we’re trying to do with my film festival, the Bentonville Film Festival, is to say, “Look, films with a female lead are…successful. You no longer can use this completely disproven and antiquated idea that teenage boys are the audience you have to please…They’re playing video games. It’s time to realize that women are not only horribly neglected, but are the best audience to get now.”

It’s like, how much proof is there going to need to be? Star Wars has female stars. Can we please just get past this idea? My research institute found that films with female lead characters make 16 percent more at the box office than films with a male lead character. Can we get with the program?

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Which filmmakers, female or male, do you think are setting the bar for inclusivity and leading a good example for others to follow?
I would say right off the bat that J.J. Abrams is doing an incredible job and a terrific standout is Ryan Murphy, who recently formed an organization called Half. [The foundation strives to fill 50 percent of director openings on Murphy’s shows with women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community, among other efforts, according to The Hollywood Reporter.] We cannot trust ourselves to judge by “This is the best person for the job” because we all have unconscious gender bias and we cannot help unless we are very, very conscious in avoiding it.

RELATED: This is What The 1992 A League of Their Own Premiere Looked Like

All things considered, looking back on A League of Their Own, what would you say is the film’s legacy?
Its legacy is that it’s performing the same task that it did back when it first came out, which is that women and girls in droves take up sports because of that movie. The interesting thing is, who knew that films were going to last forever like they do now.

I have just as many women and young girls tell me that they took up sports because of that movie as when it came out. I have just as many people recognize me from that movie and tell me what it meant to them and how it impacted their lives. It’s unbelievable to be a part of something that has an impact like that. You love to be in a movie that people like or enjoy or whatever, but to have it change their life is pretty extraordinary and it certainly changed my life.

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