Over the course of more than 40 years in show business, Penny Marshall has starred as an iconic sitcom character (Laverne of Laverne & Shirley) and directed Oscar-nominated movies (although she has not been nominated for an Oscar herself). And while she was at it, she set a record as the first female director to have two movies gross more than $100 million: Big (1988) and A League of Their Own (1992). Now 68 and recovered from a battle with cancer, Marshall’s just written her first book, a memoir entitled My Mother Was Nuts that our reviewer described as “bold and irrepressibly sassy.” She recently spoke with Kirkus about her family, her career and her tendency to mumble.
Why was this the right time for you to write a memoir?
Well, my brother [Garry] had just done his second book, which was wonderful. And everyone keeps writing in the rags and on these horrible TV shows that “She’s dying.” I’m fine! So I figured, well, I’ll write a book. That was just the motivation. Someone also asked, and I figured, ‘Why not?’
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Were there other things that you wanted to set people straight on with this book, or make sure you had the final say about?
Probably. First of all, my parents were crazy and didn’t like each other. And my brother, who’s been wonderful to me, and my family, we stay close. And my daughter and my grandkids. I’m lucky, you know? And I dodged a big bullet. The rest was a lot of luck. If you’re just honest with people and treat them like human beings, then you can get good work out of them. Tell me the truth, I’ll deal with it.
I don’t even know if it’s in [the book], but Steve Zahn one day was upset [on the set of Riding in Cars With Boys], and I didn’t know what was the matter. I said, “What’s the matter?” A good friend of his had died in Minnesota and the [assistant director] wouldn’t let him go. I said, “Don’t be silly, go! Go to the funeral. Life is more important than show business. Go. I’ll shoot around you.” You’ve got to treat people like human beings. There is more to life than show business, by the way.
Why did you choose this title for the book?
Because my mother was sort of nuts. Not that I’m not saying all of us are crazy in some way. But she was particularly a little nuts. It’s mainly because I didn’t know what sarcasm was for many years. I was a kid. Then once I got that, a lot of stuff was sarcasm. But a lot of it was what she felt. She didn’t have a censor. And she was slightly nuts. She would have said she was nuts, so it wasn’t like I’m insulting her. You live with that all your life, and you’ve got to develop a sense of humor or you’ll kill yourself. And I think we all developed, my brother and sister and I, we got our humor from my mother. You’ve got to be able to laugh at things or else you’ll destroy yourself.
What were the biggest challenges for you in writing this book?
I talked into a tape recorder, and I mumble. I know I mumble. I do stream-of-consciousness more, so that’s why it goes around in circles. I’m just [talking about] myself, what I did. I’m not trying to accuse somebody else of doing something. It’s what I did.
What was the process like working with collaborator Todd Gold?
He was someone to keep me on track, because I sort of will go off on a tangent. But I didn’t do the descriptions of the films. That I think the editor did. I’d say I did Awakenings, and [then] I’d say what it was about or what I thought the underlying thing was about. But when they say “steps gingerly,” I don’t say “steps gingerly.” Those words don’t come out of my mouth.
Was there anybody you mention in the book whose reaction you were worried about?
I don’t think I really hit anyone. I usually would hit myself. I put myself down before I’ll put anyone else down.