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Appreciation: Garry Marshall, a consummate spinner of modern-day fairy tales

Garry Marshall died Tuesday at a hospital in Burbank, Calif., of complications from pneumonia after having a stroke.
(Zuma Press)

“I want the fairy tale.”

You may recall that line from “Pretty Woman,” the 1990 smash hit that made Julia Roberts a star and announced Garry Marshall — already a major creative force in television with “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “The Odd Couple” — as a force to be reckoned with in the movies as well. The line could also serve as a worthy epitaph for Marshall’s three-decade-plus film career, during which he would recast the Cinderella story, again and again, in contemporary trappings that were as easy to smirk at as they were hard to resist.

Marshall, who died Tuesday at 81, gave us hard-luck fables and ugly-duckling fantasies, comedies of wish fulfillment and spectacles of female empowerment. He also gave us endless opportunities for guilt-free commodity fetishism, in which the camera’s gaze was forever being magnetized by plush interiors, sparkling jewelry and even more sparkling dental work.

His aesthetics never drifted too far from Beverly Hills, or from the lessons he learned as a TV director before making the leap to the big screen. He knew that whatever his movies may have lacked in visual dynamism they could make up, to some degree, in human charisma — in the radiance of his leading ladies and their mega-wattage smiles, and in the infectious good vibes radiating from behind the camera.

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Not all of them were ladies, of course. He worked wonders with Matt Dillon in “The Flamingo Kid” (1984), the rare coming-of-age charmer in which Marshall didn’t feel the need to tie everything up in a neat bow. (The movie also marked one of the director’s earliest collaborations with Héctor Elizondo, his longtime friend and a fixture of his movies ever since.)

Any traces of youthful disillusionment had been airbrushed away by the time he made “The Princess Diaries” (2001). It was our first real introduction to Anne Hathaway, who stumbled into the frame in gawky spectacles and a bushy Hermione Granger mane, and walked out having undergone the mother of all Disney makeovers. Talk about happy endings: Hathaway may have been crowned princess of a fictitious European monarchy called Genovia, with none other than Julie Andrews as her royal grandmother, but Marshall wound up handing this ingenue the keys to a far richer kingdom, namely that of Hollywood itself.

I still remember seeing “The Princess Diaries” in theaters with my family and leaving in a pretty good mood, all of us well aware that we’d just been sold a load of goods and not really minding. I suspect that was more or less the effect Marshall hoped his movies would always achieve and which, at their best, they managed. One of the lessons of his unabashedly formulaic, often critically derided output is that sometimes — whether it’s a G-rated teenage transformation story or an epic tearjerker like “Beaches” — a load of goods is exactly what you’re in the mood for.

And Marshall, to his credit, was committed to rediscovering his particular version of once-upon-a-time in any number of unique settings, not all of which were as squeaky-clean as Genovia — not at first, anyway. “I like to do very sentimental, romantic kind of work,” Marshall once said in a New York Times interview. “It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.” It’s a telling remark, insofar as it raises the notion — largely corroborated by his films — that Marshall saw himself as not just a mass entertainer, but also an adept clean-up artist.

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Long before “Pretty Woman” became ubiquitous shorthand for the ’90s romantic comedy, the movie set off shudders of moral outrage for daring to cast Roberts as a streetwalking Eliza Doolittle. Never mind that its portrait of prostitution was carefully glossed over by a polite cutaway whenever things got too steamy — and by the very casting of Roberts herself, who led with her enchanting and thoroughly wholesome grin. Seeing “Pretty Woman” today, the very idea of indignation seems hopelessly quaint: The movie remains one of the neatest tricks that Hollywood ever turned, and one of the most profitable.

None of Marshall’s other fairy tales would be as commercially successful, and few of them — certainly not “Runaway Bride,” a popular but lackluster reteaming of Roberts and her “Pretty Woman” beau, Richard Gere — would prove as emotionally satisfying. Even still, Marshall never tired of finding strange, unconventional environments in which to serve his deeply conventional brand of cinematic comfort food. At times he seemed drawn to certain dramatic scenarios for no other reason than to swoop in with his soft lighting and his beautiful actors, and set about carefully softening every edge — something that earned him both praise and criticism in the case of “Frankie and Johnny” (1991), a tender blue-collar romance starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.

And this impulse could elicit, in its wilder incarnations, a measure of real appreciation, more for Marshall’s pure daring than for his execution. He misfired with the S&M shenanigans of “Exit to Eden” (1994), and with “The Other Sister” (1999), a graceless attempt to squeeze the challenges of the mentally disabled into his signature romantic formula. But he fared rather better years later with “Georgia Rule” (2007), which turned the story of a teenage girl’s sexual abuse into a compelling maelstrom of bizarre moods and melodramatic twists, with Lindsay Lohan, Felicity Huffman and Jane Fonda steering the film from comedy to tragedy and back again.

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The last movies Marshall directed were a loose trio of holiday-themed ensemble movies — “Valentine’s Day,” “New Year’s Eve” and this year’s “Mother’s Day” — that invited no shortage of scorn from critics (this one included), and for good reason. At a time when decent romantic comedies are dispiritingly rare, Marshall’s latest trick — six movies for the price of one! — felt close to self-cannibalism, in service of stories that were neither especially comic nor, truth be told, particularly romantic.

Their saving grace, in a way, was Roberts. Whether playing a tight-lipped Army captain in “Valentine’s Day” or a powerful home-shopping empress in “Mother’s Day,” she offered a welcome reminder of the love and loyalty that Marshall commanded on screen and off, his pleasure in turning filmmaking into a warm, familial enterprise. But look closer at Roberts — seeming older, wiser and sadder than she did in her star-making breakthrough, her smile breaking through only in brief, bittersweet glimmers — and you can see the truth beneath the gilded fantasy. Not everyone, she seems to signal, lives happily ever after. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still want the fairy tale.

ALSO

Garry Marshall, director of ‘Pretty Woman’ and creator of ‘Happy Days,’ is dead at 81

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Julia Roberts and Garry Marshall continue their one-movie-per-decade streak with ‘Mother’s Day’


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