The Toss: Casting Andre Agassi's movie
Andre Agassi (center) is in talks to turn his autobiography into a movie. Emile Hirsch (clockwise from top left), Colin Farrell, James McAvoy and Paul Dano are options for the cast. (PR Photos (4)/Caryn Levy/SI)
Last week on The Toss, Stuart Fraser joined Courtney Nguyen to debate the merits of the ATP and WTA teaming up for a joint year-end championships. A slim majority of readers -- just over 51 percent -- voted that both Tours stand to benefit from a combined event.
This week's topic, debated by SI.com's Bryan Armen Graham and Courtney Nguyen, takes a step back from the tennis reality. With the news that Andre Agassi is discussing film options for his autobiography Open, it's time to get excited for the flick, and the potential all-star cast that can carry it to the Oscars.
Today's Toss: Who should play the key roles (Andre Aggasi, his father, Mike, Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf) in the movie version of Open?
Graham: If you’re casting the movie for real, and not just playing the separated-at-birth game, you need someone with talent who is young enough to play Andre at 16 but old enough to play him at 36. Colin Farrell’s physical resemblance to the bald elder statesman at the 2006 U.S. Open is uncanny, but are you buying him as the teenage phenom who turned pro in 1986? Emile Hirsch, James McAvoy and Paul Dano are three younger guys who have the chops to carry the role, even if you'd have to use your imagination a little more.
For Steffi Graf (left) on the big screen, how about Laura Dern? (PR Photos)
Laura Dern seems like a no-brainer for Steffi Graf, and I’d happily pay to watch Rachel Weisz chew the scenery all the way to a Supporting Actress nod for Brooke Shields. Adrian Grenier or Jesse Metcalfe for Pete Sampras. Ving Rhames for Jim Brown (whom Agassi beat in tennis at 9 years old). Mickey Rourke for Gil Reyes, Agassi's fitness trainer and friend.
Nguyen: Absolutely love the suggestion of Emile Hirsch; if I had my way, he'd be the guy. And you actually don't have to use too much of your imagination to see the physical resemblances between the two. My one concern with Hirsch is whether he can pull off that jockish bravado that Agassi had when he was young.
I'm with you on avoiding the separated-at-birth game. We're tennis fans and Andre's story should get the proper treatment, not some made-for-TV dreck that eschews talent for looks. But I actually think Colin Farrell is a good call here. I've always thought Farrell got a bad rap, mainly because he's picked really bad roles more often than not. But he was fantastic early in his career in Tigerland and he was great in In Bruges as well.
Even if he didn't look like Agassi, he's basically lived that life: young talent, turned to the rock-and-roll lifestyle to cope, dated supermodels and then grew out of it and matured into a fairly clean and sober dad. The Colin Ferrell who exists now looks nothing like the one from 10 years ago. Plus, he's got the athleticism to pull off the role of an athlete and I think he can channel the brooding rage that's needed. Besides, he's got those "sad puppy dog eyes" already. That's 90 percent of Andre right there. I'd love to be able to cast Eric Bana but he's even older than Farrell so it's doubtful he could pass as a 16-year-old.
As for the rest of the crew, Dern is a little too "girl-next-door" for me. I'm actually going with Uma Thurman for the role of Steffi. She's more mysterious and exotic, which I like for the role. If Pete Postlethwaite were still alive, I would love him for the role of Mike Agassi. And if we're going to try to move away from casting on physical appearance alone, I think Ed Harris could do something interesting in that role. There's an intensity about him that just oozes through the screen.
Brooke Shields (left) played by Blake Lively? (AP; PR Photos)
For Brooke Shields, I want to say Michelle Monaghan, but as a pragmatist who knows you need to get the younger set to buy tickets to your movie, I'd be willing to sell out and give the role to Blake Lively. For a young Pete Sampras, I like Andrew Garfield if he can bulk up and actually look like an athlete -- which I think he has for his new role as Peter Parker in the Spiderman reboot. Bring in John Cho for Michael Chang, Steve Harris for Jim Brown and either Javier Bardem or Benicio del Toro for Gil Reyes.
So we seem to have a good handle on the cast. Here's a question that's bothered me for years: Why in the world can't people make a good movie about tennis?
Graham: What, you didn't like Nobody's Perfect? Kidding. The ignominious history of tennis on celluloid is indeed mystifying. There have been standout movies with memorable tennis scenes: Annie Hall, Fletch, The Royal Tenenbaums and most recently Bridesmaids, to name a few. And others like Match Point that pitched a genre pic against a tennis backdrop. Vanessa Redgrave portrayed Renee Richards in Second Serve, a TV movie in 1986 -- Nurse Ratched plays her mom! -- and 1979's Players is a tennis-themed romance that features a ton of real-life tour pros in cameo roles, among them John McEnroe, Ilie Natase, Guillermo Vilas and Tom Gullikson (say nothing of a 20-year-old Steve Guttenberg).
But the few sports movies that showcase tennis -- Wimbledon (2004), The Break (1995), Jocks (1986) and Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) -- are strictly bargain-bin fodder. Why? Maybe it’s because tennis is a sport distinguished by hair-trigger athleticism and individual moments of brilliance that can't be easily recreated on screen. Maybe it’s because it lacks the set plays or team maneuvers that “read” cinematically. Maybe it’s because tennis players have no teammates to chat up or coaches to talk strategy with and propel the narrative. (Even boxers have corner men as sounding boards every three minutes.)
Fact is, the greatest sports movies are barely about sports (see: Raging Bull, Chariots of Fire, The Hustler, et al.), and the success or failure of a character study like Open: The Movie depends more on mining Andre's quiet desperation off the court than trying to convince us Emile Hirsch or Colin Farrell can return a 130-mph serve. Less can be more: There are only two fights in Rocky (the very beginning and the very end) and "The Dude" never rolls once in The Big Lebowski.
Let's just hope Hollywood's power brokers regard the dearth of great (or even competent) tennis movies as an opportunity rather than a deterrent: How many iconic cycling movies were there before Breaking Away?
Oh, and one last casting aside: If you're going to sell out Brooke, how about Lindsay Lohan in a comeback role? Lord knows she'd work for scale -- no small concern given the all-star cast we've assembled -- and the buzz will get (and keep) the public talking.
Nguyen: Nah. Li Loh's too far gone at the moment and brings too much off-screen drama to any on-screen role she takes. She's going to need a Travolta Pulp Fiction-type role in 10-15 years to rip it up and start again. I'm afraid Brooke just isn't enough of a stretch from her tabloid self.
It frustrates me that tennis has never had its shining moment at the cinema, and I've thought long and hard as to why. I think it's precisely what you pointed out, that tennis just doesn't "read" well on screen. Unless you're talking about Novak Djokovic's "Shot Heard 'Round the World," tennis never boils down to a single play or a single shot. It's a series of shots imbued with bits of genius that result in a subtle tug-of-war between two players.
Hollywood has yet to figure out how to capture the subtlety that makes tennis so riveting to watch for those of us who are smitten with the game. It's a physical game of chess and filmmakers just haven't learned how to quickly educate movie watchers about how to appreciate it. But it has to be possible. If David Fincher can make computer programming exciting in The Social Network, someone out there has to be able to translate tennis.
Which is why a movie adaptation of Open is so interesting. Much like The Social Network wasn't really about technology, or Moneyball wasn't really about baseball, Open really isn't about tennis. At least, that's what those bidding on the film rights should understand. If done right, Open: The Movie should be a character study on an individual of modest means, saddled with extraordinary ability and expectation, and how he dealt with the demons that overtook him. It's a simple idea and the the fact that tennis is the backdrop shouldn't complicate things. How exciting would it be to get Aaron Sorkin, Steven Soderberg or Fincher attached to this project?
So let's hope this gets done right. How great would it be if Andre's book, which was unique in tone and candor insofar as sports autobiographies go, resulted in the first great American movie about tennis? Until that happens, I'll just keep wearing out my copy of The Royal Tenenbaums.