Penny Marshall was one of the few women who helped break through barriers in place for decades. She, along with a handful of others, fought for validity at a time when the only way any director could be validated was if they could bring home box office successes.
Marshall began her work as an actress who transitioned to directing while starring in Laverne and Shirley. Her first film was Jumpin’ Jack Flash in 1986 with Whoopi Goldberg. She followed that up in 1988 with Big, which launched Tom Hanks into superstardom and netted him his first Oscar nomination. Big was such a huge hit that Marshall became a force to be reckoned with almost overnight. It was a conundrum — she was a woman and women weren’t supposed to make movies that were hits, but she did. She was part of a generation of women who made movies so successful they could not and were not ignored.
Two years later, Marshall would make Awakenings, which became just the second ever Best Picture nominee directed by a woman (Randa Haines became the first in 1986, directing Children of a Lesser God). However, she did not land in Best Director. In fact, after Marshall’s rise, women who made successful films were mostly excluded from the elitist club that was Best Director: Barbra Streisand, Amy Heckerling, Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers. They were almost punished for turning out hits.
Penny Marshall should be remembered for rising and persevering in an industry that was designed to keep her pigeonholed in her designated box.
The list of films nominated for Best Picture that were directed by women is longer than the list of women directors who have been nominated for Best Director. Ava DuVernay remains the only woman of color to have a film nominated for Best Picture. And as you can see from the list below, in 2009 and 2010, with an even 10 nominees, it was possible to get two films in directed by women. This year no woman is expected to crack the top five.