SAN FRANCISCO—In 1967, when the Boston Marathon was restricted to men, race officials angrily pushed Kathrine Switzer off the course after realizing she was a woman hiding in a hooded sweatshirt. She did finish the race.
In 1973, tennis champ Bobby Riggs crowed about male superiority in sports before Billie Jean King beat him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the so-called “Battle of the Sexes.”
Elisabeth Shue, Dermot Mulroney, Carly Schroeder, Andrew Shue
(Picturehouse; US theatrical: 1 Jun 2007 (General release); 2007)
And in 1972, in South Orange and neighboring Maplewood, N.J., 9-year-old Elisabeth Shue was the first girl in her community to play organized soccer, with and against boys.
“There was no other choice back then. There was no girls team to play on,” says Shue, 43, the Oscar-nominated star of “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), holding her 11-month-old daughter Agnes on her lap.
“I didn’t feel like it was a big deal, which is so perfect for the way I felt in my family. It was so hard to stand out in my family, and even doing something that I look back on and think was pretty extraordinary didn’t seem that way when I was doing it.”
Shue’s pioneering four-year soccer career (she quit when she was 13) in part inspired the movie “Gracie,” which opens Friday.
It’s set in 1978, and 15-year-old Gracie Bowen (played by Carly Schroeder) comes to terms with the sudden death of her older brother by training hard and trying to take his place on the high school boys varsity soccer team. Shue and Dermot Mulroney play her parents.
Gracie’s would-be male teammates resent her presence and foul her brutally. In real life, it was the 5-foot-2 Elisabeth who set the tone.
“I was kind of tough, because I grew up with brothers, and I was second-oldest, so I knew how to beat up on guys,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t like them treating me differently because I was the only girl, so I would start out every game slide-tackling a few of them, just to let them know not to mess with me.”
It was with a tender touch, however, that she and her family fashioned “Gracie” from the Shue’s real-life story.
The idea originated with Elisabeth’s younger brother Andrew Shue, 40, who played heartthrob Billy Campbell for six seasons on “Melrose Place.” He has a small role in “Gracie” as a high school history teacher and soccer coach. The movie was directed by her husband, Davis Guggenheim, who also directed this year’s Oscar-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” They all, along with Shue sibling John, served as the film’s producers.
“Gracie” is dedicated to the memory of Will Shue, the oldest of the four children, who died accidentally in 1988 when he fell from a broken rope swing.
“Andrew wanted very much to find a story where he could honor Will, and it came into focus once he enlisted Davis’ help,” says Elisabeth. “Davis was interested in doing something on Will when he was alive—because Will had this wonderful underdog spirit—and told Andrew, `One of the underdogs in your family was your sister, and you could tell both those stories: What it’s like to lose someone you love, and what it was like to be (Elisabeth) in the family.’”
“Looking back now,” Andrew says in a separate interview at the hotel, “I get to see how tough it was for my sister because of being the only girl, as opposed to seeing that she was special and unique.”
Soccer was a constant in the Shue household, where the living-room fireplace often doubled as a goal mouth and the fragile staircase spindles were routinely knocked out by well-placed kicks.
Will Shue was captain of his high school team and scored the winning goal in the 1978 New Jersey state championship. Andrew played at Dartmouth College and later for two seasons with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. John was a regional All-American at Harvard College, and their father captained the Harvard College team in 1958. All of the Shues, including Elisabeth, wore their dad’s number 7 on their jerseys.
In “Gracie,” Mulroney’s Bryan Bowen character is not entirely supportive of his daughter’s wish to try out for the boys varsity team. And he’s pretty hard on her once he agrees to train her.
“Our dad coached us, but in a less intense way,” says Andrew. “He was out there playing with us all the time. We played all kinds of different sports. He was very creative in how he got us working together. We would make home movies and put on plays. It was constant creativity and so the sports felt the same, where we had this passion for working together and performing and seeing if we could deliver.
“We loved it so much, and it was kind of how we communicated and how we measured ourselves.”
Andrew was 5 or 6 when his sister made the boys soccer team and doesn’t remember it being odd until he saw her photograph in the local newspaper.
“I was surprised they were making a big deal about it, I think, because I was young, and she was playing with us all the time. It seemed natural that she would be playing with boys. She was a great player.”
“And she still is,” says the 16-year-old Schroeder, who trained for 12 weeks with former L.A. Galaxy captain Dan Calichman to pull off the Elisabeth Shue-worthy soccer moves in “Gracie.” She’s having lunch at the hotel with Andrew.
“Lisa (Elisabeth’s nickname) had just had Agnes when we were filming,” Schroeder says, “and she was always taking care of her little baby. She did come out and kick it around a few times and totally kicked our butts, especially Andrew’s. Right, Andrew?”
He laughs, knowing his sister has him and his tennis game in her sights. Elisabeth trains two hours a day, hoping to compete at the lowest level in professional tennis. But what she most wants to do, she admits, is to beat her brother 6-0, 6-0.
“I take that as a compliment,” he says, “because I know she’s the most competitive person on the planet, and if she’s after me, that means I must be doing something right. My tennis game actually is quite good, but hers is coming on in a huge way, and I think I’m in deep trouble. She’s already beaten our brother John.”
Andrew still plays soccer, hosting a standing Saturday afternoon game in his backyard in New Jersey, where he built a small field for five-on-five matches.
“It’s my pride and joy. It’s like my garden. I make sure every little blade of grass is standing in the right position,” he says.
He left “Melrose Place,” and acting, in 1998 to devote himself to the Do Something foundation he started in 1993. His goal is to inspire young people to become active citizens and problem-solvers. He has three children.
Meanwhile, his big sister, Elisabeth, is busy with baby Agnes and her other two children with Guggenheim, Miles and Stella. She continues to accept the occasional movie role.
Still, all these years later, she wonders, “What if?”
What if she hadn’t quit playing competitive soccer at 13, because, she says, “I got distracted by my body developing and what other people thought of me and wanting so much to find my self-worth and wondering whether boys liked me.”
Maybe, she muses, she would have played on the U.S. women’s team that defeated China at the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the Rose Bowl, before 90,000 fans.
“You never know,” she says with a shrug.