FILM / Batting their eyelashes

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The Independent Culture
A League of Their Own (PG). . . .Penny Marshall (US)

The Hours and the Times (No cert). . . .Christopher Munch (US)

In the recent round of baseball movies - Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, even Parenthood - the sport, indeed the 'church of baseball', as Susan Sarandon calls it in Bull Durham, has crystallised the American ethos - nobility, bonding males, apple pie family values. The latest of these films, A League of Their Own, has had a success similar to its brothers at the American box- office. But it's about a female baseball team, and so can't quite claim the same universal significance. It's not about nationhood, only women. It has no wider philosophical intent.

The story is Rosie the Riveter on the baseball diamond. Just as women were summoned to the factories during the Second World War, so, with the major league players busy licking Hitler, a female league was formed. At first they are feted, in a patronising kind of way (in their cutey-pie outfits and charm-school smiles, they look more like cheerleaders than baseball stars). But as the war winds down, the message to the players becomes: everybody's Un-American and one's country is better served back in the kitchen.

Geena Davis, who plays the team's rangy and determined star player, has been busily selling the film in promotional interviews on a feminist ticket. That's curious, though, since she plays an especially dull, unenlightened role, a happily married woman (there's an undernourished romance with Tom Hanks's boozy coach) who pines throughout the season to go back home and make babies. A League of Their Own does touch on the initial resistance to the idea of women taking over the national sport - stout behatted matrons bridling at the threat to femininity - but it loses sight of what happened after the war.

True, Rosie was pressured out of the workplace, but sport is a different matter; it's spectacle, show-business almost, and we have always had a place for women there. The film bustles past the watershed of 1945; we learn vaguely that the sponsor (a splendidly cheesy confectionery baron played by the director's brother, Garry Marshall) has been persuaded to keep the teams going. And then cut - to a ghastly epilogue in which the players, now blue-rinsed and arthritic, reunite decades later for a reunion match. It's so rare to see older women celebrated in a movie that it seems ungrateful to grouse - but this is an over-extended, soupy scene. (Whatever happened to Hanks's earlier edict that 'there are no tears in baseball'?) And, while diamonds are supposed to be a girl's best friend, you get no sense that this stint as professional sportswomen has radically changed their lives.

The director Penny Marshall's weakness is a sentimental streak; her forte is comedy (see Big; Awakenings). But this film shows, yet again, that it's hard to be feminist and funny. The team includes, for instance, a plug-ugly duckling, a fat girl who is nearly rejected when the scout gets a good look at her face. We're invited to laugh at her too, forgetting that the laughter is also meant to be seen as reprehensible. And it's worrying that by far the funniest and most memorable character is the wisecracking, sexist-pig talent scout himself (Jon Lovitz). 'See that grass, girls?' he says, pointing the players whom he has recently culled from a dairy farm in the direction of the baseball pitch. 'Well, don't eat it.' Still, Madonna redeems some of her unhappier screen outings here, in a bad-girl supporting role: interestingly, her two best film performances have both been for female directors - the first was her debut role in Susan Seidelman's Desperately Seeking Susan.

The Hours and the Times is a small vignette deserving of interest, and not just for its celebrity subject. It's a weekend-in-the-life of John Lennon and Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, during a short holiday in Barcelona. Epstein is in love with Lennon, full of unrequited romantic agony; the Beatle is fey, flirtatious, leading Epstein cruelly up the garden path, or fighting, perhaps, a reluctant attraction.

The 60-minute film, exquisitely scripted and played (Ian Hart as John, David Angus as Epstein) captures the thrust and parry of an attempted seduction with a light hand; it also miraculously suggests the fairy-tale allure of pre-package tour Barcelona. This is an ultra-low budget picture, but, allowances made for its production values, a fine contribution to the ICA's current season of New Queer Cinema.

All films open tomorrow; see facing page for details

(Photograph omitted)