Garry Marshall Was a Jedi Master of Morally Complicated Movies

Making a fairy tale out of a tragedy was Marshall's specialty.EXPAND
Making a fairy tale out of a tragedy was Marshall's specialty.
Walt Disney Studios

Garry Marshall is gone, and his passing may have many wondering if all our happy days are behind us. But the magic of Garry Marshall was that the happy days never existed in the first place; he just made you believe they did.

When he created the ’50s-era sock hop that was Happy Days, Marshall was responding to stark realism creeping onto TV sets in the form of All in the Family, Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sanford and Son and MASH. Biting humor tinged with drama drew audiences for special episodes surrounding gay rights, war, abortion and feminism, but if all you ever watched were Marshall’s shows — Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, The Odd Couple — you’d think the biggest issues facing Americans were whether or not everyone was going to get a date for Friday night. And it was oddly comforting.

When the script for Pretty Woman came across Marshall’s desk at Disney, it was called 3,000 and had a decisively unhappy ending, with Vivian and Kit enjoying only a fleeting moment of what you might call happiness with Viv’s money as they headed off to Disneyland, knowing their life is back in hooking. But Marshall wanted a fairy tale, and so that’s what he got, though he didn’t even have to change much of the script. He was able to take the same basic story but infuse it with bright lighting, infectious laughter and soft focus to effect the same change. And lest you don’t understand how difficult that may be, imagine what it would be like to turn the script for Scarface into a rom-com. But, again, Marshall’s biggest feat in Pretty Woman was making us forget that prostitution rarely ends well. As arts and culture editor Gwynedd Stuart asked me in conversation, “Is it empowering or strange that little girls grew up thinking that being a prostitute wasn't that weird?”

Marshall also directed the 1987 Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell hit Overboard, where a man kidnaps and brainwashes a woman, having sex with her under false pretenses to basically enslave her as his house girl to punish her. And it’s fucking funny. Marshall works his Jedi magic with the assistance of charismatic actors, and as someone who grew up loving Overboard, watching it in the present day is complicated: I realized just how much of this mixed-moral premise I missed. Was I just now waking from the Marshall Matrix?

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The fact is that Marshall may have done more for women creators than any director of his time, launching the careers of people like Melissa Joan Hart, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway and even his sister Penny Marshall. He repeatedly, consistently, incessantly wrote meaty parts for women to say and do funny things, confining his work almost solely to the sphere of women, and worked with multiple female producers. But it also doesn’t change the fact that his movies incidentally inserted surreptitious storylines about purity and princesses, a kind of shiny, untarnished version of womanhood unmarred by history and realism.

But perhaps Marshall hit on something women were longing for anyway: a cleaner, more acceptable version of themselves.

Marshall will be missed.
Marshall will be missed.
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