It’s 30 Years Later and We’re Still Trying to “Be the Ball”

Picked up the latest Sports Illustrated today. Not bad, some interesting articles. One in particular caught my eye: an interview with the cast and crew of the cult classic “Caddyshack,” which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary (it debuted in theaters on July 25, 1980). For those who’ve never seen it, be warned: it’s about golf… sort of. It centers around Bushwood Country Club, where there has always been a clear definition of place in society. On the one hand you have the staff and caddies, comprised of working-class Italian, Irish, and African-Americans (mostly Catholic). And on the other hand you have the members, rich and Anglo-Saxon (namely Lutheran). The status quo is shaken up by two iconoclasts: Ty Webb (played by Chevy Chase), the reclusive wunderkind golfer whose father helped found the club, and Al Czervik (played by Rodney Dangerfield), the nouveau riche real estate man who throws money around like it’s growing on trees. Ty Webb does his best to aid caddy Danny Noonan (played by Michael O’Keefe) in Noonan’s dreams of escaping his place in society by going to college, although he cautions Noonan not to compromise himself in order to do so. In the background is a side-story involving greens-keeper Carl’s (played by Bill Murray) ongoing battle with an annoyingly cute gopher (played by a puppet) that’s damaging the course. All of the stories come together in the climactic golf battle between Webb, Czervik, and two longstanding club members (with Noonan caddying), with Carl simultaneously trying to blow up the gopher’s underground tunnels using plastic explosives. I won’t give away the ending, but it wraps the various stories up in bizarre but satisfying fashion.

“Caddyshack” grossed nearly $40 million in North America. It has been named as the 7th best sports movie of all time by the American Film Institute. Most importantly, it has become an inextricable part of Americana. Its quotes pervade not just the American populace but the sports world as well. Golfers will frequently tell each other to “be the ball.” And Carl’s usage of the term “Cinderella story” (the term may have existed before, but “Caddyshack” popularized it) is now the go-to expression for any team rising above and beyond expectation. This was a film whose production was characterized by rampant drug use (Dangerfield arrived for his first meeting with the movie executives and greeted them by doing lines of cocaine on their desk), off-screen feuds and mis-communications (Chase and Murray had never acted together before due to a feud that dates back to their “Saturday Night Live” days; the final scene’s use of explosives was never cleared by the country club’s owners, so the producers sent him to a meeting off-site and detonated them essentially “behind his back”), and little to no script or direction (most of the famous scenes are just improvisation). And yet, it has gone on to incredible critical and financial fame. After 30 years, we have to ask ourselves, “why?” What is it about this film that is so classic?

For me, what makes this movie so unforgettable is the acting of its three stars, Dangerfield, Chase, and Murray. Rodney Dangerfield is wonderfully over-the-top, turning every observation into a barb, every detail into a point of humor. This was his first film, and he was still trying to figure out how to turn his stand-up routine into a successful acting style. While he would go on to greater performances (my favorite is definitely “Back to School”), there is so much to love about his flamboyance, his lack of interest in any established norm or rule. Meanwhile, Chase brings an affable otherworldliness to the character of Ty Webb. His character is so out-there that you honestly have no idea what is going to come out of his mouth at any given moment. His quiet, calmly bizarre attitude stands in poignant contrast to Dangerfield’s and Murray’s more in-your-face characters. And speaking of Bill Murray, what else can be said? In the words of the GZA, he’s “Bill Groundhog-Day, Ghostbustin’-ass Murray!” His lines are ridiculous, his acting is insane, and his improvisation is without compare. It’s not just his voice, but his facial expressions (the slack-jawed, diagonally-positioned mouth, the mostly-stoned eyes), posture (constantly leaning, never upright, never RIGHT), his gravitas. While Czervik is kind of everywhere, and Webb is somewhere else, Carl is just not there. We barely know what to do with a character like his, as every time you think he’s just a goofball he starts muttering about cutting people’s hamstrings. Dangerfield would go on to greater things, and Chase was in mid-career stride, Ty Webb being a memorable but not mind-blowing performance. But Murray’s Carl, for the sheer mindless insanity, is perhaps Murray’s greatest comedic performance.

Since this is ostensibly a sports blog, I feel obliged to mention something about golf. So here we go: something about golf. Ha ha! “That was a doozy, judge!” (or something like that). Anyway, I don’t know very much about golf. The SI article interviews several golfers about the movie, and the consensus seems to be that the sentiment is right on, the atmosphere accurate, and the play-style very accurate to the 1970s (the mechanics of the golf swing have changed since then). I think golf as a sport, despite its “purity” (Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” reminds us that it’s “just you and the ball, all by your lonesome”), brings out something negative in us. Golf’s history has been defined by separation and segregation. Blacks, Jews, Irish, Catholics, a cornucopia of minorities have been denied access to this game, and to this day it is played primarily on private golf clubs and expensive resorts. While race  and ethnicity have SOMEWHAT evaporated as means of exclusion (all the same, golf is perhaps the whitest professional sport there is, with the possible exception of hockey), class remains. Membership in country clubs across the country remain elusive, and resorts charge top-dollar to make use of their greens. For this reason, many sports fans avoid golf, where the typical garb resembles that of the rich, stuffy, and exclusive. Whether we feel it brings up something undesirable in ourselves or we honestly feel no connection with it remains to be seen, but golf is a marginalized sport, with only the greatest of its athletes achieving broad-spectrum appeal (think Tiger Woods, then think how quickly we tore him down). Your typical sports fan will usually eschew golf in favor of a sport where the athlete speaks to the more heroic notions of the human experience (the poor Hispanic immigrant who barely speaks English but whose pitching talent allows him to achieve super-stardom; the boy who grew up playing hockey on the local frozen lake and goes on to win a Stanley Cup; the African-American growing up in a troubled home in a troubled neighborhood transforming his talent into a college education he could never otherwise obtain) and the racial makeup more accurately reflects America as it is today.

“Caddyshack” has a universal message however: fight for what you believe in and you will be rewarded, regardless of your place in society. Czervik, Webb and Noonan are all out of place in their worlds. They see things as askew and want to change them. To that end, they do what is possible to either undermine (Webb and Czervik) the status quo or break away from it completely (Noonan). Their success (I won’t kill the ending, but I will say it’s a happy one) gives us hope. We can change what we see as wrong. We can be better than what society defines for us at birth. All it takes is hard work and talent. This is the purest notion of the “American Dream,” and anything that recalls it will do well in American society. Many have talked about the death of the “American Dream” in the last 30 years, citing an increasing feeling amongst the working and middle class that the upper class, despite everything, remains a constant in society, comprised of the children of those who occupied it 30 years ago, and that there is no room for newcomers. This may be true; if so, it’s a depressing truth. Anything that can let us feel for a moment that this is not the case, and especially that does so with style and flair and humor, becomes a part of Americana. This is why “Caddyshack” remains so beloved: it lets us dream, if only for a moment, that we can be more than what society tells us to be. Like the man says: “In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Au revoir, gopher’.”

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