I feel like a better title for Penny Marshall’s memoir would have been Shit Happens, but I’m sure her publisher would have said no.
I wanted to read My Mother Was Nuts because I grew up watching Penny Marshall on Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley as well as watching several of the movies she directed thereafter. Generally, when I read a celebrity’s memoir, it’s because I have an interest in what they have to say based on how much I like or love them. I like Penny Marshall enough from watching her on TV and the movies she’s directed, but this is a celebrity memoir that we can definitely say is…problematic.
Above all, I enjoyed the early parts of her memoir the most as she details her childhood growing up in The Bronx neighborhood of New York. Was her mother nuts? Maybe a little. But no more nuts than any other mothers like hers in the ’40s and ’50s, I’m sure. The book started to go downhill for me after the chapters detailing her pregnancy in her early 20s, where she forced herself to marry the father because that’s just what you had to do back then, but thereafter she seems really hard on herself because they ended up divorcing and she chose to let the father raise her daughter, Tracy, and it seems fake and for show. As a matter of fact, the vast of majority of My Mother Was Nuts seems fake and for show. Example: she feels the need to insert pointless and boring anecdotes about how she was good friends with several of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live and then devotes entire chapters to times she hosted the series or memories she has with the cast members, and it all just reads very inauthentic. Marshall’s ego bridges the gap between any sightings of genuine emotion in this memoir.
The parts I was most interested in reading were the chapters about Laverne & Shirley, more specifically Marshall’s take on what went down regarding Cindy Williams leaving the series at the beginning of its eighth season, leaving Marshall to carry on Laverne & Shirley without Shirley. But before you get to those chapters, Marshall outlines how she broke into television: her brother, Garry Marshall (producer, director, screenwriter and creator of both Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley) advocated for her. That’s it. She is pretty open about the fact that her brother helped her out in Hollywood, getting roles for her or convincing people he knew to give her roles or basically creating roles for her, such as Laverne DeFazio. Marshall acknowledges that her brother paved the road for her in every way, but then goes and doesn’t even acknowledge her privilege when talking about how show business worked differently for others. Case in point: she begins one of the Laverne & Shirley chapters reminding everyone that she and Cindy Williams were always close friends and got along, but Williams always thought the writers and producers favored Marshall and Laverne over Williams and Shirley, simply because Marshall’s brother created the series. Marshall dictates how wrong she was about that, and that the real issue was her manager who was constantly counting the laughs between the jokes of Laverne and Shirley and would always make Williams insecure. Marshall writes that she too had insecurities, but she didn’t have a manager whispering them in her ear every day. I’m not defending Williams or her manager but, UM, you didn’t need a manager because your brother got everything for you. Take a step down from the high horse, Penny.
I actually ended up skipping several chapters because, after a certain point, I could no longer deal with most of Marshall’s insipid and pointless anecdotes about things that aren’t really interesting to read about and only contribute to my opinion that My Mother Was Nuts was written for show. I just wanted to read Marshall’s take on what happened when Cindy Williams left Laverne & Shirley, which was pretty interesting. Williams married Bill Hudson (Goldie Hawn’s ex-husband) and then when she became pregnant, she started making outlandish demands from Paramount and the producers regarding time off and her salary. Eventually, they had reached a deal, but after the first two episodes of the series’ eighth season were filmed, Williams had quit. Marshall tried to contact her just to talk about it, but Bill Hudson (now acting as her manager) never let her speak to Williams, and this would be the case for several years to follow. Marshall was especially hurt when Williams went to TV Guide and said that Marshall had basically pushed her out the door so that she could finally have the show to herself. Years later, when Marshall had heard that Williams and Hudson had divorced, she contacted her and they talked about the circumstances leading up to her departure from Laverne & Shirley for the first time since it happened. As Marshall writes, Williams remained unapologetic for quitting like she did and leaving Marshall to carry the show on her own, as well as her belief that Marshall had always wanted the show for herself. Marshall asserted once again how wrong she was, but that they “agreed to disagree,” because that’s what old friends do. Okay then. I don’t believe you both ran down the street after that holding hands and counting rainbows, but you do you.
The rest of My Mother Was Nuts deals with Marshall’s accounts of her progression into directing movies, which is where it definitely becomes clear that she is a snob. This woman has never heard of the word modest, I’m sure. It’s almost as if the film studios she worked for all those years had never let her speak her mind and now all of a sudden she’s choosing to “set the record straight” with a bunch of stories and rants that nobody asked for or cares about. She even tries to take credit for Whitney Houston being fairly well to work with on The Preacher’s Wife and that she didn’t believe any of the things she told people like Oprah Winfrey or Diane Sawyer about her drug use. Penny darling, it’s not your business or your job but thank you for filling the remainder of your word quota for this book with things that don’t concern you. I was actually looking forward to seeing what she had to say about directing Riding in Cars with Boys, given that she dealt with a similar situation having gotten pregnant and married out of obligation. But all she does is talk about how Drew Barrymore wasn’t her first choice for the lead role and she kept making “demands” and the movie didn’t turn out perfect, but whaddaya gonna do? Someone needed to take the keyboard away from Penny Marshall at this point. She even has to insert a sentence about how Anne Hathaway read for the lead in Riding in Cars with Boys but she was too young, so she recommended him to her brother Garry for The Princess Diaries and “he said thank you to me.” Bitch, do you want a medal? Do you want credit for Anne Hathaway’s breakthrough role? STOP TALKING.
I enjoyed the parts about her childhood and her take on both the good times and the drama on Laverne & Shirley, but this is not an exceptional memoir, it’s someone who no longer has the microphone in her hands and feels the need to prove something to people who don’t care.
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