In preparation for the new TV adaptation of A League of Their Own, I finally watched the original 1992 film. I was charmed by Geena Davis and Lori Petty’s banter as sisters Dottie and Kit, and I gasped when Tom Hanks yelled the infamous line, “There’s No Crying in Baseball!” It definitely passes the Bechdel Test and sheds light on a bit of history that was not well known at the time.
What really stood out to me was Madonna’s portrayal of “All the Way” Mae. This wasn’t Madonna’s first acting role, nor would it be her last, yet it is her finest acting. Prior to and after A League of Their Own, Madonna starred in some questionable flicks — for every Evita and Desperately Seeking Susan, there was a Body of Evidence or Swept Away. We’re not pinning it all on Madonna: a handful of titles in her filmography were simply not that great for reasons beyond her control. And that makes A League of Their Own a very important film in the Madonna canon: it proves that, given the chance, she is a funny, charming, even scene-stealing actress.
Madonna’s portrayal of Mae was so much more meaningful and funny than it might have been in someone else’s hands. The bond between Mae and Doris is one of the best aspects of the film, and it was facilitated by Madonna and O’Donnell’s real-life friendship formed behind the scenes, with O’Donnell famously singing one of her songs to her every day to tease her.
Their chemistry helped make the movie click, but Madonna did more than sell us on the bonds between these women. Madonna leaned into her New York roots to play fellow New Yorker Mae, layering her character with wisdom and sass that left no doubt who was in control when she was in the room. Madonna delivered lines that could have read as cringeworthy perfectly, such as when she tries on her baseball uniform for the first time and realizes that “there’s no pockets for my cigarettes.”
She also took Mae’s overt sexuality and handled it in classic Madonna fashion: leaning into it and setting it on her own terms all at once. She’s aware that men love ogling her, but she’s in control of how and when they ogle her; something she’s had a lot of experience crafting and experimenting with across her musical career. Her ability to harness it while playing Mae retains her sexuality without ever feeling exploitative.
Finally, Madonna-as-Mae delivers on a certain restraint that pulls back right before her character tips over the edge of vulgarity. Madonna isn’t just a bombshell, even in the scene when she goes to confession, and gets a priest all hot and bothered with her salacious stories — she’s also hysterically funny, and knows when to lean into her comic timing. Madonna’s Mae is a good time, endlessly charismatic: She makes swing dancing look effortless; her joy is infectious.
Filming the baseball flick was not a grand slam for Madonna. Geena Davis wasn’t the initial choice for Dottie Hinson — Debra Winger was originally cast, but she dropped out when she heard Madonna was joining the cast. Winger thought that Madonna would turn the film into an “Elvis Presley” film, and she later went on to blast Madonna’s “inability to play ball.” But Madonna worked hard on this film, and while the baseball may have challenged her, it also played to her strengths in ways none of her other movies quite have. It may not be the role she’s most remembered for, but it’s safe to say Winger’s fears were misplaced. Madonna is an essential part of A League of Their Own — and the movie itself is an essential part of understanding what Madonna can do as an actress.
Before you go, click here to see what the cast of A League of Their Own looks like now.