The Stanley Cup Finals begin today, so the League has hockey on the brain. Recently, three of us rewatched the 1977 Paul Newman classic Slap Shot and got together (in e-spirit) to discuss the film. For a Seventies comedy with cartoon black-eyed thugs on its poster, it certainly packed a punch and we had plenty to talk about.
Slap Shot is the story of a struggling hockey team, the Charlestown Chiefs, in a struggling league (modeled on the NAHL, which were the minors for the World Hockey Association, which attempted to challenge the NHL in the 1970s and ultimately folded in 1979). Paul Newman plays Reg Dunlop, the team’s player-coach. Dunlop is reaching the end of his hockey playing days but is still the same woman-chasing schemer he’s always been. He’s separated from his wife Francine (Jennifer Warren), a hairdresser; she’s playing the field herself and seems to be quite happy with the separation from Reg, although they have a cordial relationship. Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean) is the team’s young star player, whose wife Lily (Lindsay Crouse) is not happy that Princeton-educated, moneyed Ned is playing hockey. Her solution? Stay drunk the entire time they live in dumpy Charlestown. The team hits a new low when their scheming manager Joe McGrath (Strother Martin) signs the Hanson Brothers (real life hockey players Steve and Jeff Carlson and David Hanson), three childlike, possibly developmentally disabled goons who revel in violence.
Everything changes when Reg gets wind of the front office’s plan to shut down the team at the end of the season. Reg sets to turning the team into a bunch of violent scrappers who will do anything to win, encouraging the players to give their all by creating rumors of a phantom sale of the team to Florida. He also turns his attention to promoting the team, chiefly by putting the Hanson Brothers in play and turning to gimmicks right out of professional wrestling. This disgusts Ned, who withdraws even more from the team and from his wife, leaving her vulnerable to the attentions of the ever-provocative Reg. The team begins winning, but just how far can dirty tricks take them?
If you haven’t seen Slap Shot, we don’t want to spoil too much. It’s available streaming, right now, so go watch it and come back. We’ll be waiting for you.
Google Drive subterranean bar that has gone to seed. The whiskeys are good, the beer is copious, and the bartender looks like he probably had a career in the World Hockey Association. PROFESSOR MORTIS, MAX ROLAND EKSTROM, and BELLABONE are sitting at a heavy table in the corner.
Mortis: Every so often a movie seems to haunt me — floating around on the edge of my consciousness, and Slap Shot is one of these movies. I first heard of it in college — a roommate loved it — and later Max also suggested it. My roommate was actually from Johnstown, the city in Pennsylvania that stood in for Charlestown. The Chiefs are loosely based on The Johnstown Jets, a WHA team. Screenwriter Nancy Dowd’s brother was even a player for the team. This gives the movie a lot of verisimilitude — even when ludicrous, comedy-movie-style things are happening, there’s an undercurrent that this only slightly exaggerates the happenings of low end hockey. The location shooting plays into this — nothing feels Hollywood about it, and 1970s economic malaise and Rust Belt decay is practically a character in its own right.
Bellabone: You’re totally right about Rust Belt decay being a looming presence in the movie. It’s really well done and makes for a jarring juxtaposition with the comedy antics.
Mortis: Being who I am, I felt there was a kinship in that element with this movie and My Bloody Valentine, and I briefly thought about doing a double feature of both (it didn’t happen). The casting plays into this as well — Paul Newman is a big star, but besides him all the recognizable faces are character actors; they mix well with the actual hockey players used to fill out the teams. There’s also something uniquely ugly about actual 1970s working- and middle-class clothing that a contemporary film like this shows us that modern films like American Hustle simply can’t recreate… I lost track of how many times I commented on their hideousness to the Baroness. Paul Newman is an attractive guy, but even he can’t quite make up for the tan leather (pleather?) pants and jacket ensemble he wears for much of the film.
Bellabone: Make up for? I’m sorry, I have those pants. My dad filched them from his buddy, and I wore them with pride. They look even better on Paul Newman. The weird golf plaid number he wears the rest of the time is, admittedly, very sofa-like, but I still have a soft spot for loud trousers. Thanks for pointing out, by the way, that this can be the fifth in my series of reviews featuring men in leather pants. (Previously: The Doors.)
Mortis: I think it might be more the combo of the pants with the jacket that does it for me, but to each their own, I guess.
Bellabone: Yeah. Enough about bad fashion (though it is a theme in the movie — don’t forget the runway scene).
Mortis: I had completely forgotten about the runway scene, which is a delight! Slap Shot’s authenticity only goes so far towards explaining its lasting cult audience: this is also a very funny movie. More times than not, the jokes are laced with profanity, which, again, feeds into the feeling of verisimilitude the movie has. A modern remake of this would have to tone down the profanity, probably by replacing some of it with gross-out gags. This film avoids those, so there aren’t a lot of jokes that revolve around bodily functions. Also, it’s from an era that was actively trying to give us a different style of filmmaking — the film is shaggy, with a slower pace, time taken to give us characters, and an ending (which I don’t necessarily want to talk about in detail) that manages to give us a happy ending without resorting to clean, traditional hockey carrying the day. Rocky is always considered to be the movie that made happy endings okay again, though everyone seems to forget that the “happy” ending is just that a loser boxer lasted an entire match with the champ… he doesn’t win. Slap Shot seems to have the same kind of compromise ending.
Bellabone: None of the tragedy is averted. The mill is still closing, for no particular reason; we have all seen those towns, liberally sprinkled across the midwest, that were thriving when our parents were growing up but have been sliding rapidly to perdition ever since. The team is still being shut down, for the cruellest of reasons: to provide a plutocrat with a tax write-off at the cost of the livelihoods of many. Reggie Dunlop, although he has a job, does not gain the sort of wisdom that might help him find a way in the world without hockey. And hockey, given how old he looks by the end of the film and how unconvincing a coach he is, will not sustain him forever. His optimism as he tries to charm his wife into rejoining him at the end is pretty deluded. The town is done, the team is done, Reg’s marriage is done. But it’s surrounded by a lively soundtrack and Animal House-style humor. There’s people getting bonked in the head, dumb wives and groupies, mooning, and even a parade at the end. The surface hilarity and the fact that a technical victory meant a lot of guys have jobs the next year don’t compensate for the fact that things are going down the tubes.
Mortis: Sure — I wasn’t fooled by the ending into thinking it the town would survive or Newman learned anything; it’s one reason I can’t imagine this ending playing now. What I meant is, compared to the downer endings in vogue before Rocky-endings where more often than not the film stops right after the heroes die in flames, this is a less bleak ending. We’re not in fantasy land yet, where Reg would save the mill, get back together with his wife, and learn to be a great coach, but we’re also not in the days when someone would end a car chase movie with the cast dying in a fiery car crash out of nowhere. It’s an ending that’s very much of its era and one which I don’t think would fly today. I actually watched Animal House for the first time only a few weeks ago, and its ending reminded me of this one. Although the text telling what happened to the characters allows them to “win”, in the film proper they manage to accomplish even less than the team in Slap Shot, which is to say, they manage to get back at the college, other frats, and the town.
Bellabone: I definitely grimaced at the car crash in American Graffiti. But that ending had unexpected components, is all I will say.
Mortis: That ending, though, means something in the film.…it has been a while, but I’m remembering it as being the sign of the end of an era, both in the characters’ lives and in the history. The ending I’m thinking of, and always think of when I think of 70s downer endings taken to their logical extreme, is the ending of a car chase movie, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, in which the characters manage to evade the police after a very long chase, escape with the loot and THEN get hit by a train. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but in my memories, at least, it’s an out-of-nowhere downer ending on what had been a film hardly grounded in realism or trying to give us a message. Getting back to Slap Shot, one thing that hurts the movie for me is the “B” couple — Ned and Lily are a little bland and, quite frankly, they both annoy me. The scene of Lily and Reg in the park was the first scene of the film that I saw and it ensured I didn’t see much more of it for a long time. I’m not sure if it is simply the actors, or if it’s the writing.
Max: All the Slapshot characters are annoying. It’s just some have shorter scenes.
Mortis: Where have you been, man?
Max: Sorry, I was just checking the Sox score. As I was saying, Reggie is sharply contrasted against his surroundings and thus larger than life, but he appears to have almost no interiority at all. Each character wants something, and they cravenly scheme after it. Nobody is capable of reflection, besides a shallow sort of self-appraisal. They come into conflict with one another, but very few of the characters can surprise one another, or even themselves. Perhaps Reggie can. He turns his car around 180 degrees a couple of times in the film to indicate a change of heart or at least a change of strategy, but can he really change anything about himself besides his next bedmate?
Bellabone: You guys keep talking about Reg as if he is this Don Juan. I got the impression from the movie that most of his skirt-chasing is an after-effect of the breakdown of his marriage, and that his wife left him more because he was an absent, unsuccessful guy with no interior life than because he was cheating on her excessively. To me the oddest “change” moment was how Lily, by agreeing to get a makeover,
seems to end up with a change of heart and is happily watching hockey with the other wives. Though, this too may be scheming as when it gets Braden back on the ice, he performs a memorable routine that seems like he is ready to leave hockey, which is her desire. I don’t hate the Bradens as much as you do, though, Tim; I think it is part of the town vs gown obsession that we see in a movie like Breaking Away. Braden is actually a pretty stand-up guy for a “gown;” it’s not his fault that, like the owner of the Chiefs, he’s immune to all the bad things that can happen to the team members if they fold.
Mortis: I actually don’t find him irritating because he’s a “gown”; I love the frat boy Hart Bochner plays in Breaking Away, for example. Bochner is an ace jerk (could anyone else play the yuppie who tries to negotiate with the terrorists in Die Hard?) but I found Ontkean and Crouse to be bland; I’m not saying that I hate them, or I think they were “bad” characters per se, they just didn’t do anything for me. Braden is a pretty weak foil for Reg, but he does get that one great scene; Lily’s makeover, I agree, is an odd note, and doesn’t really have the same impact. Then the comic relief characters are a mixed bunch. Anybody else think of Morris Wanchuk (Brad Sullivan) as a prototype for Billy Bob Thornton that went horribly wrong and was even more disgusting than the actual article? This guy made Bad Santa look like a clean cut guy. There’s something deliriously disgusting (and somehow very funny) about this creep’s heard-of, but never seen, skirt chasing.
Bellabone: Yeah, I was thinking more Quagmire. “Never seen” = “totally imagined” sexual conquests.
Mortis: Undoubtedly imagined. Quagmire creeps me out less because he’s animated, which at least gives you that distance that cartoons provide from reality. Speaking of prototypes, who’s seen Semi-Pro? I’m not sure how that movie got made without sending the writers of Slap Shot a big check…it’s basically a remake, only with basketball replacing hockey. I caught it on cable a few times, in parts, so I can’t remember what they replaced the violence with (since there’s no way you could have the Hansons in basketball). I remember it being an okay as an unofficial remake, but they smoothed out all the 1970s quirks this film has.
Max: Haven’t seen it. Fights definitely make the NHL more interesting than the NBA, though.
Mortis: I’m not a big sports guy, so I’m wondering how those who do watch a lot of hockey feel about the film’s take on violence in the sport. I do recall that during the one hockey game I’ve watched in my life (thanks Max) I was pretty surprised just how much fighting they allow. The film, to me, seemed to want to play it both ways in a way that seems true to the sport.
Max: I thought a lot about this while watching the movie again. None of the violence in the movie is permanent; guys will be covered in blood in one scene, and then be basically okay in the next. Any team that had guys playing that rough and fighting that often would decimate its roster. And we know now that when guys fight on the ice, they are slowly destroying their brains. Nevertheless, the way the film portrays fan reactions to sport violence is pretty good. There are certainly hockey purists, like my dad, who criticize the NHL’s tolerance for fighting. But at the same time, even he can’t look away when the gloves drop. Slap Shot devotes plenty of celluloid to the stands, showing people of both sexes and all ages enraptured by the carnival of wanton carnage, and when you get a whole stadium of people riled up and looking for blood, it’s fucking scary. Obviously, the movie is asking whether violence is better–more exciting, more invigorating, more remunerative, and more likely to win out over anything in its path. The answer seems to be a pretty emphatic “yes”.
Bellabone: “More” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.” Violence plays like a drug in the movie. Specifically, a team performance-enhancing drug. They try gooning it up, they start winning, and no one is willing to let them quit: not the fans, the management, or even the opponents, who bring in bigger badder thugs.
Bartender: Hey! Who you calling a thug?
Max: Hm, as much as I like talking about this movie, maybe it’s time for us to go. Glad you could join us.
Slap Shot is a classic sports comedy and well worth a look, especially considering the Stanley Cup playoffs are underway. Even if you’re not a huge sports fan, it’s a hilarious film that is very much of its time in the best way possible, except maybe some of the menswear. Editor’s Note: Contributors’ comments have been edited and/or fabricated for flow and entertainment value. No bartenders were insulted in the making of this conversation.