“There’s no crying in baseball!” Immediately you can see and hear Tom Hanks’ character Jimmy Dugan chastising Evelyn (Bitty Schram) with Dottie (Geena Davis) by her side in one of the most memorable baseball films of all time, A League of Their Own. These characters, while fictitious in the film, were inspired by the real women who gave the United States the pastime of baseball during WWII. The women who comprised the 15 different Midwestern teams in the league, all have their own stories to tell, but former player Terry Donahue’s tale of a hidden life and love is graciously delivered in Chris Bolan’s heartbreakingly rich documentary A Secret Love (Netflix).
Donahue played for the Peoria Redwings and we meet her, now in her nineties, living in the quaint suburb St. Charles, just outside Chicago, with her “cousin” Pat Henschel. Known always to their family as Aunt Terry and Aunt Pat, we discover that the love between them went much deeper. The film, through candid interviews, situations captured, photos and footage, takes us back in time to the 1940s when men wore the pants, literally, and women were prim and proper. The concept of a gay couple or even marriage was blasphemous and outlawed as decreed by the mayor of Chicago.
Bolan painstakingly stitches together the pieces of the past as both Terry and Pat recall the difficulties they encountered. From their youth and professional sports careers to their first meeting and lives they lead in Chicago, we walk back in time thanks to the conversations of a doting niece, Diana, who is, as Terry says, “The daughter I never had.” This richly layered story includes a keen and unique perspective of history and its social acceptance of differences as we cringe at the barricades intentionally placed before them.
Living in Canada, Diana watches as her Aunt Terry’s independence is slowly deteriorating due to Parkinson’s Disease. Even under the watchful eye and strength of Pat, their ability to live on their own is coming to an end. The family turmoil of distance and helplessness quickly rises to the surface, much like a rumbling volcano. Bolan exquisitely captures these moments as Diana, Terry, and Pat bare their souls, knowing that the end of the horizon and how to properly plan for it is needed. But there is still one unfinished item which brings this heartfelt film to its proper and rightful conclusion…no spoilers here!
Bolan deftly expresses these moments on camera, taking the time to interview these women independently, and engaging them to share the honest reflections of love, history, and their fears of the future and their relationships.
While the documentary has a cinema vérité feel, the camera easily allows you to fall in love with Terry. According to Pat, everyone does. With a twinkle in her eye, she’s spunky, adorable, loving, kind, and a spit fire, possessing an incredibly unique history and life. Pat, always feeling an outsider, is equally spunky, but never lets down her hair. You see the emotions rippling beneath the surface as she continues this journey with Terry, but it isn’t until letters are discovered that we get a gorgeous glimpse into her emotional depth. This poetry and prose, with the signatures ripped from the bottom to protect their identities, eloquently demonstrates their love, the chances they took and the dangers it imposed. Pat reads them aloud and it is at this point that you melt emotionally as you realize just what a beautiful gift these two women have. The prose so thoughtfully executed finds its way to your ear and seeps in, creating a symphony of harmonics that fill your soul. We know these women; who they were and who they now are.
Marriage, of course, was out of the question for Pat and Terry and telling their families that they aren’t just good friends are two of the topics addressed in the film. Watching and hearing them discuss the reactions and the preparation allows you to almost walk in their shoes to better understand not just them, but anyone who bears news of a long hidden secret. It is with honesty and acceptance that the final act in this film hits you with heart wrenching beauty.
Getting to know these women is getting to know history. Director Penny Marshall of A League of Their Own certainly understood this unique part of women’s history, and Terry Donahue loved this connection. Carrying her baseball cards, signed, of course, she would always have a few on hand to give out to those who knew her story. You can hear the delight in her voice accompanied by a certain pride in being a part of history and the recognition of the film.
Director Chris Bolan makes just the right choices in storytelling to evocatively express a time when being a gay couple was punishable by law and the chances these two “rule breakers” took in order to live a life of love. We travel through more than seven decades, learn of an era nearly forgotten if not lost, and meet two of the spunkiest, most daring, and loving couples you could imagine. If only we could all be so lucky.
You can stream A Secret Love on Netflix beginning April 29, 2020.
© Pamela Powell (4/27/20/) FF2 Media
Photos courtesy of Netflix