Geena Davis Talks Girl Power, Sports and the 25th Anniversary of A League of Their Own
Geena Davis, 61, grew up in a family of modest means in small-town Massachusetts. Her dream of being an actress led her to Hollywood, where she found fame in movies including Beetlejuice, Thelma & Louise, Stuart Little and The Accidental Tourist, which won her an Oscar.
This summer marks the 25th anniversary of another film she starred in: A League of Their Own, the true story of a WWII-era women’s pro baseball league. In the film, which will be commemorated April 18 with a special Blu-ray release, Davis played a catcher excelling with her teammates at a game dominated by men.
After the movie, she became an influential voice against gender and age discrimination, founding the nonprofit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas—which begins its third year in May—to promote diversity in entertainment.
What attracted you, 25 years ago, to A League of Their Own?
Everything about it was appealing. I had always cared about women and girls’ empowerment, but having just been in Thelma & Louise and seen the reaction that it got just jacked it through the roof. And then to be able to be a part of a movie that is about women having a chance to do things they don’t ordinarily get to do was incredible. It is played by an ensemble of women, directed by a woman [Penny Marshall]. I’d never played an athlete before. I was scared, but it was really fun.
Did the movie change anything for women?
It’s had a tremendous impact on girls playing sports. And I still have girls and women recognize me from that movie and say that it encouraged them to play sports. That’s what I hear constantly: “I play sports because of that movie.”
Did A League of Their Own change Hollywood’s attitude toward women?
Nothing changed. There’s been no momentum to change. Hollywood still believes that any successful movie starring a woman or about women is a fluke. Research by my institute [seejane.org] has proven that to be false. Films with a female lead made 16 percent more at the box office than movies starring men. Movies with male and female co-leads made 28 percent more than movies with only male leads.
Why is there a Hollywood bias against women?
Half of it is the idea that men don’t want to watch women in leading roles. The other half is unconscious gender bias. For the most part, women take up very little space onscreen, are valued for their appearance and don’t get to do the adventurous and important things. It’s unconscious gender bias that’s responsible, not a Hollywood plot against women.
Do you ever see any of the League of Their Own cast—Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks?
Tom, for sure. I also see a lot of the girls at my Bentonville Film Festival. We’re having a League of Their Own 25th anniversary softball game, with the whole cast and director Penny Marshall.
You’ve led the way in exposing gender bias in children’s movies and TV. How did that happen?
I got interested in increasing the number of female characters in kids’ entertainment because of my three children. I have twin boys. When they were little we saw a squirrel in a park. They said, “Look, he’s cute.” I thought, People always call animals “he.” Why? So I said, “Yes, she’s so cute.” I thought, Oh, my God! They’re 4 years old and they already think everything is male!
In your own career, you’ve faced gender and age discrimination in Hollywood. Why didn’t you simply walk away?
I don’t want to be forced into retirement. I tremendously resent how everything really narrows down the older you get. It’s not fun.
Men don’t have that problem?
No. I’m always saying to my agents, “Pitch me for the men’s parts.” There’s really no reason that women can’t play a lot of the [male] roles.
Why are there so few roles for older women?
When you’re younger, you can be girlfriend, wife, the sex object, whatever. As you get older, the male writers, producers and directors don’t see you as sexually necessary and they don’t think of you in other roles. In our culture, the default is always male.
When you were growing up, did you have any role models?
My mom was a great role model. She was a teacher’s aide. She had lots of energy and loved people. And I had a music teacher, Amy Kelly. She was an incredibly important person in my life. I took piano, flute and pipe organ lessons from her from age 6 until 18. I spent a lot of time with her.
Why was she important?
She was always very encouraging: “You can do it!” She gave me confidence. She loved me. It’s very meaningful to have someone not in your family say you’re valuable.
Any other female role models in your childhood?
Aunt Gloria was a very big influence. She traveled and seemed so incredibly sophisticated. She took me to my first play at a dinner theater. I thought it was the most glamorous thing! I couldn’t believe it—eating while somebody’s putting on a play. And she ordered a glass of wine. I thought my brain was going to explode! This [was] the most sophisticated thing I’d ever seen in my life. She had a huge impact on my life.
Did any men influence you growing up?
My dad, enormously. I remember as a child there was a hurricane and the power had gone off, and he said, “Come, we’re getting the kerosene lanterns out of the storm cellar to bring into the house.” I remember going outside in the storm and down into the cellar helping him. It was always like that. “Come up on the roof, we’re putting shingles on.” I felt like I could learn and do anything. I miss my dad most of all. [Davis’ father, William, a civil engineer, died in 2009.]
When did you decide to be an actress?
When I was 3 years old I announced that I wanted to act in movies. I asked Santa for sunglasses.
After graduating Boston University, you moved to New York City to be a model. Why?
I came up with this idea to be a model because models Christie Brinkley and Lauren Hutton were in movies.
That was your plan?
[Laughs] It’s so much easier to become a supermodel than to become an actor. Miraculously, when they were casting Tootsie [her first role, in 1982] in New York, they wanted a model who could act in her underwear to make Dustin Hoffman uncomfortable. My [modeling] agency said, “We have one!”
Was being 6 feet tall ever a problem for you?
I was a tall baby. I was always the tallest kid in class. I was self-conscious about it. My mom said, “You’re going to be tall. You have to stand up straight.” So I always did. I never slouched. I’d find other ways to try to seem shorter, like stick my hip out.
Your current husband, Reza Jarrahy, is a surgeon. Does his not being in show business help explain why your marriage is successful?
Two husbands [Jeff Goldblum and director Renny Harlin] were in the [movie] business. That was never a factor in the success or failure of my relationships. We lead a very low-key, un-Hollywood life. Most of our friends are not in the industry. My kids don’t have any friends who are the children of famous people. Their lives are incredibly normal. We try to keep them grounded.
What will you think if your kids decide to become actors?
When they were born I said that I will have done my job successfully if none of my children want to go into acting. I don’t know if it will work. We’ll see.