A Nice Guy Finishes First
Mark Frost, Bill Paxton, Shia LaBeouf and Josh Flitter Talk About The Greatest Game Ever Played
From a National Catholic Register article
By Steven D. Greydanus
The story is remarkable enough in itself: In 1913, a 20-year-old caddie named Francis Ouimet, the son of French and Irish Catholic immigrants, aided by a brash, 10-year-old truant caddie named Eddie Lowry dwarfed by the bag of clubs he carried, stunned the world and captured the American imagination by taking on British master Harry Varden at the US Open at Brookline’s exclusive County Club — and winning.
Yet The Greatest Game Ever Played, starring Shia LaBeouf (Holes, Constantine) and directed by Bill Paxton from a screenplay by Mark Frost adapting his own best-selling book, isn’t just the true story of a dramatic championship playoff. It’s also the story of a revolution in popular culture, of how a poor, unassuming youth helped democratize the most aristocratic of games, transforming golf from the exclusive domain of private clubs and wealthy elites to a popular middle-class pastime played on public courses.
“I think Francis was in many ways the Jackie Robinson of golf,” Frost commented at a recent Toronto press event. “He was the man who broke through that class barrier and created an interest at a national level that had never been there before. He landed on the front page of every newspaper in the country, and golf became a sport that was then accepted into the mainstream of sports culture, and in the years that followed has become a mainstream sport around the world.”
Yet Ouimet’s dramatic story had long since fallen into obscurity — in part, according to Frost, because Ouimet himself, a career-long amateur, never made much of his own success.
“Francis was so unfairly modest and humble as a person that he never talked about himself, and he never really tried to toot his own horn,” said Frost. “The thought of a 20-year-old unknown kid winning the US Open today in a playoff against, say, Tiger and Phil Mickelson, and who then refuses to exploit that opportunity commercially, or take a bunch of endorsement deals, is unthinkable. But that’s the kind of person Francis was. He didn’t think that was the right thing to do.”
Ironically, if Oumet’s integrity was part of what led to his obscurity, it was also a big part of what drew Frost, Paxton, and Shia LaBeouf to tell his story.
“Francis — that was the whole appeal of the movie,” said LaBeouf, who plays Ouimet. “Golf was secondary. It could have been Frisbee. Francis was an amazing human being… Francis was a man. Francis was honorable. Francis was a family man, he had integrity, he was respectful, he was shy. He wasn’t the poster boy for any kind of sport you would ever think of.”
Reflecting on Francis’ moral character, Frost commented, “Every day you’re confronted with choices that could take you down one path or another. And people who choose the good path can often seem kind of boring. But a guy like Francis Ouimet, who unfailing followed that path, I found extremely heartwarming, and a great role model as a human being, because he was so kind to other people. Kindness is a quality that we don’t see a lot in people. It was a thing that Dickens wrote about a lot, because in a world that has a lot of inequity, like the one he grew up in, it seems kind of like a miracle, when kindness appears in a person’s behavior. So in this story I know that I was drawn particularly to his character, his challenges, and his kindness, particularly to Eddie, this little kid that hooked up with him. I thought that was quite remarkable.”
Frost’s popular new book has revived interest in this inspiring story. “Mark Frost wrote a great book,” said Paxton, “that brought these forgotten people back into the public consciousness, much like when Walter Lord published A Night to Remember back in 1955. You might not know this, but most people had forgotten about the Titanic. Two world wars had been fought. There had been a world depression. This was a ship that had been lost from another era, from an Edwardian era, that was long gone. And this book just hit the zeitgeist of the imagination of people around the world, and suddenly all this interest was spawned again in this ship.”
Now Paxton’s film stands poised to raise the story’s profile even higher — if the film finds an audience. But the filmmakers know they have a challenge: Golf doesn’t have the box-office cache that other sports do, even if marquee stars like Matt Damon, Will Smith, and Adam Sandler can sell movies with golf in them. Or, as LaBeouf bluntly put it: “A lot of people don’t like this sport.”
That’s why the filmmakers knew they needed to do something different. Commented Frost, “I realized, having seen a bunch of real boring golf movies, that you can’t shoot a golf film like you do golf coverage on television. There’s a real standard convention of how you cover that — you follow the flight of the ball, you watch it land, and you watch it stop rolling. That’s fine for sports coverage, but it’s deadly dull in a film… There was a film about Bobby Jones last year that was a very reverent golf-based movie that had a lot of that kind of coverage in it, and nobody went to see it. And I think that may have been one of the reasons.”
If the filmmakers wanted to do something different, they succeeded. Paxton and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut bring an impressive bag of tricks to bear in making Greatest Game visually and psychologically compelling in ways you would never expect of a golf movie.
In fact, its makers argue that Greatest Game isn’t a golf movie at all. It may take place on a golf course, and the characters may be playing some of the most authentic-looking golf ever featured in a motion picture. But the visual energy of the film is more reminiscent of a Western or a swashbuckler.
“I wasn’t interested in making a golf movie,” said Paxton. “The movie to me is probably closer to Star Wars than it is to a golf movie. It has kind of the code of the Jedi knight… it’s much more of a Joseph Campbell kind of allegory.” Frost agreed that Greatest Game is “not a golf movie. It’s a movie about a compelling human story that just happens to be set in this arena.”
One of the things that sets Greatest Game apart from the typical sports film is the way it humanizes Ouimet’s opponent Vardon. “Most sports films villify the opponent or opposing team,” commented Paxton. “In this movie you have as much empathy for Vardon as you do for Ouimet.”
LaBeouf concurs. “In this movie there is no such thing as a villain. Harry Vardon is not villified. He is the opposition, but he’s loved, because his story is very similar to Francis’s. So it’s not the regular type of sports film… It’s not this Lego pieced-together Disney type of sports film.”
Sympathetic portrayal of Vardon aside, much of the film actually does resemble a generically manipulative Disney film: Ouimet’s and Vardon’s disapproving fathers, the ruthless British aristocrat Lord Northcliffe, and of course little Eddie Lowry, the tough-talking but adorable young caddie. The catch here is that in this story the clichés are apparently all true.
“When I read the script, I thought Eddie sounded like an invention out of Disney casting,” agreed Paxton. “I couldn’t believe it — a 10-year-old caddie in the US Open… it was almost like this 10-year-old Burgess Meredith out of Rocky: ‘Keep your head down, champ…’ But he really was this kid. Eddie Lowry was a remarkable human being. He was a street kid who grew up like Francis around the game, and it was true that his brother Jack was supposed to carry Francis’s bag and got caught by a truant officer, whereas Eddie got away. And reluctantly, Francis took him on to be his caddie, almost out of the kind of kindness that was Francis Ouimet.”
Frost revealed that the portrayal of Lowry was substantially based on Lowry’s own unpublished account of the Open, written years later, which Lowry’s adult daughter gave to Frost during his research phase. “This kid was the original Dead End Kid. His father had died the year before, he was the youngest of six kids living in abject poverty, one step away from the poorhouse, really. So he was very tough, very resilient, very street-smart, and apparently hilarious. And these characteristics he carried with him all his life.
“So even though it might seem like he’s the invention of a Disney movie, I actually think that’s pretty much the way Eddie was. He was a fairly remarkable little kid… [Lowry’s daughter] gave me a picture couple weeks ago — there’s a famous shot of Francis after he wins on the shoulders of the crowd, and Eddie’s there below him, and it was a copy of the picture that Francis gave to Eddie when it was all over — and [Francis] had written on the photo, ‘To the boy who won the US Open.’ He gave Eddie all the credit for his victory, which was typically Francis, but also I think speaks to how important Eddie was for him in creating this belief in Francis that he could actually do this.”
Where do you find a ten-year-old Burgess Meredith? Paxton cast Josh Flitter, an outgoing, giggly young fellow whose previous roles include beating up Jim Carrey in a childhood memory/fantasy sequence in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “I think I’m really close [to Lowry],” said Flitter, “because I’m the only four-foot ten-year-old in the world — well, not any more, now I’m four-three and I’m eleven, but I was four feet and ten years old, and so was he, and he was determined to do anything, and he was ready to do anything, and I guess so am I. And he was a wise guy, and I am a little bit, I gotta admit, to my parents and my brother.”
Flitter reported that even Lowry’s daughter was impressed with his evocation of her father as a child. “I talked to Eddie’s daughter after we finished the movie,” Flitter said. “And she said, ‘You are exactly like my father when he was a kid… It’s kinda like meeting my father when he was a kid.’ It’s kinda creepy,” Flitter added. “Kinda weird.”
Flitter said he was very concerned with getting his character exactly right, because otherwise “you’re messing up history.” Part of this included, for example, Lowry’s quaint 1913 slang. “ ‘Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy,’ ” Flitter recites from memory, rolling his eyes a bit. “ ‘Okie-dokey, pipe and smokey’… I don’t know… I guess back then it was the thing to say. Now it’s like, ‘Sweet, awesome,’ but back then it was like, ‘Okie-dokey, pipe and smokey.’ ”
Even the villainous portrayal of the arrogant Lord Northcliffe was true to life as well, said Frost. “Lord Northcliffe was really quite a character… a ruthless and relentless man… And he did really believe that if he won this US Open with Vardon and Ted Ray, his surrogates, that he was going to get a cabinet position… About nine years later, he went insane and died a horrible death at a madhouse. Apparently along the way, he was the first guy to ever, while he was visiting the Trianon in Paris, tried on Napoleon’s hat one day and looked at himself in the mirror. So that whole image of the crazy guy putting on Napoleon’s hat started with Lord Northcliffe.”
Despite the emphasis on the film not being “a golf movie,” LaBeouf and Frost both spoke of the significance of golf as a test and builder of character.
“I’ve played every sport there is,” said Frost, “but golf is the toughest one to play, because it’s all up here. The pressures in golf are much greater than in any other sports, because it’s all on you. There’s no clock, there’s no real opponent, it’s just you against the course, and against par. And it can drive you crazy.
“It really tests your character in very strong and powerful ways. And I think it’s a great developer of character, myself. I think it taught me to be patient, and it taught me a kind of emotional resiliency I might not have had otherwise. It taught me how to be self-reliant in ways that no other sport had, because you can’t depend on anybody else.”
“You sit there and watch these guys who have these six-inch putts to make,” said LaBeouf. “And if they make the putt, their life is changing for the better, everything’s great. And they wind up missing the putt. They don’t scream. They don’t pull a Jeremy Shockey and go crazy and punch a wall. They take their hat off, they smile at the audience, they wave, they put their hat back on. That’s a cowboy, that’s not a golfer, y’know. And in their mind you know they’re crying and they’re screaming and they’re losing it, but they won’t show it. That’s a cowboy.”
That’s the way Paxton speaks of the film too. “I wanted to create these moments like he’s the cowboy who’s never been in a gunfight,” the director says, “or the knight who’s never been through the tournament or battle.”
Then again, Westerns don’t sell so well these days either. As well done as it is, will audiences show up for Greatest Game?
“If the movie could just speak for itself, it’d be on fire,” says LaBeouf. “The truth is that America doesn’t always support quality or good film. When you look back at what’s making money and what people are supporting… there are some people who do support art, but it’s not the bulk of the community.” Still, he’s optimistic. “We’re going to be out for a long time. It’ll be the same type of grass-roots thing that Holes had.”
I hope so.