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How Garry Marshall Listened To Women

The late director had a legendary career in film and TV, and his secret was simple

In a way, Garry Marshall, who died on Tuesday at the age of 81, got into comedy because mustard could kill him. As a Depression Era kid in the Bronx, he was allergic to 103 things and was usually sick and stuck in bed. Out of boredom, he started scribbling jokes. “It seemed to be something you could do while itching and throwing up,” he explained to the Archive of American Television. His parents were creative: Mom was a tap dancer, Dad directed industrial films. Marshall became a sports reporter and a nightclub drummer, the guy who bangs the rimshot after a comic’s punch line. But he kept writing bits. One day, he nervously gave a comedian a page of his own material. The guy set it on fire — literally. “I was very upset, but I figured show business is pretty hard,” Marshall said in an interview with the Directors Guild.

He wasn’t bitter; he was inspired. When Marshall finally got to Hollywood, he helped people. After creating some of the most iconic TV shows of the ’70s — The Odd Couple, Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, Mork & Mindy — in the ’80s, he abruptly switched careers to become a movie director. On his first job, a spoof called Young Doctors in Love, he noticed that one low-level PA on the walkie-talkies, a girl named Ellen Schwartz, sounded smart. Marshall asked to meet her, and on his next film, he promoted her to an assistant director.

That’s how women get ahead in Hollywood. Most directors don’t mentor behind-the-lens female talent. It’s not that they’re sexist, they swear — they just unconsciously prefer guys who remind them of themselves. But Marshall preferred women. “Women in the crew usually can stay up later than men,” he said in that talk with the DGA. “Two o'clock, if you look at most sets, the women are cooking and the men are fading.”

He adds, “There's not so many guys who want to do pictures with women. I thought it was a good road for me.” Looking at his résumé of hits — Overboard, Beaches, Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries — it seems crazy that other filmmakers never sped after him. He boosted female actors and female screenwriters, but his secret was embracing female stories: dramas about friendship and sisterhood, and romantic comedies that were truly romantic, not raunchy — even if they starred a hooker.

As a kid, it never occurred to me that a man had directed Overboard. What man would dream up Goldie Hawn’s rotating closet of shoes? He snorted when producers told him that “women didn’t have the sensibility to do a mass-grossing picture.” His sister, Penny, got to prove them wrong when her film, Big, was the first female-directed picture to make more than $100 million at the box office.

“I think in this day and age that women are much more complex than men,” said Marshall in the DGA interview. You just had to listen. Listen when they say they're tired of superhumanly pretty women on TV, and give them beer-drinking blue-collar heroes in Laverne & Shirley. Listen when your granddaughters fall in love with Anne Hathaway’s screen test for The Princess Diaries. Listen when Michelle Pfeiffer apologizes that PMS made her burst into tears that the craft services table ran out of bagels, and simply rearrange Frankie and Johnny’s shoot to knock out her crying scenes while she’s in the right mood.

Marshall wasn’t striving to be a feminist hero, he was just making smart choices in a dumb world. Giving women a voice was simply good, practical advice, no different than the other tips he enumerated to the DGA: don't shoot smoky scenes after August, try not to shoot big sound scenes around noon when airplanes are most frequent, wash actors’ toes between bedroom takes so make-out sequences aren’t ruined by dirty feet. He didn’t think of his female-powered movies as revolutionary. They shouldn’t have been then, and they sure as hell shouldn’t be now. Ask Paul Feig, the only male director following in his footsteps, how that’s going.

Marshall outran aging. When he was 72, he went clubbing with Lindsay Lohan while they filmed Georgia Rule. (She made him hide his velcro shoes under the table.) But eventually, the fragile health of his childhood caught up. He was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2011 but fought it back to shoot New Year’s Eve on the streets of Manhattan hidden inside a gray parka.

His holiday trilogy — Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and this spring’s Mother’s Day — wasn't his most groundbreaking work. He’d been in love with his wife Barbara for 53 years — what did he know about modern dating? But now that he’s gone, these films suddenly feel as quietly, offhandedly important as the rest of Marshall’s career. His final three movies celebrated women. Every woman: Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Katherine Heigl, Abigail Breslin, Britt Robertson, Taylor Swift, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, Lea Michele, Emma Roberts, Sofía Vergara, Jessica Alba, Kathy Bates, Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, Queen Latifah, and Shirley MacLaine. All that talent in just three films. There’s no filmmaker like him. There should be so many.