George Roy Hill is a name that should be familiar to most movie fans. Although his claim to fame mostly rests on two Paul Newman-Robert Redford hits, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), for which he won the Best Director Oscar, Hill is unique in that he could successfully helm big screen epics like Hawaii (1966), art house fare (Slaughterhouse-Five, 1972) or intimate, small scale projects such as A Little Romance (1979). Despite his versatility, he has never enjoyed the sort of critical acclaim or respect afforded such peers as Robert Altman but Hill is clearly overdue for reappraisal and so are some of the overlooked gems in his filmography like The World of Henry Orient (1964) and Slap Shot (1977), which might be his most underrated movie.
Among sports films, Slap Shot is something of an anomaly. Falling somewhere between a feel-good, audience pleaser like Rocky (1976), where the underdog triumphs, and a cynical expose like The Set-up (1949), in which the profession is tarnished by corruption, this tale depicts the misadventures of a minor-league hockey team facing its final season. The film also skates a fine line between a violent slapstick comedy (the ice rink sequences are rife with bloody Three Stooges-like routines) and a sharp social critique of the sport as it impacts the lives of its owners, players and fans.
Paul Newman stars as Reggie Dunlop, coach and player of the Charleston Chiefs, a losing hockey franchise from an economically depressed mill town. Through his own unscrupulous manipulation, Reggie manages to transform his team into unlikely champions by breaking the rules; the Chiefs are encouraged to fight dirty and soon their no-holds-barred approach draws enthusiastic crowds, anxious to see blood on the ice. The team’s success is ultimately threatened by a league rival whose members are even more undisciplined and dangerous than the Chief’s toughest players.
While some aspects of professional hockey are exaggerated for humorous effect in Slap Shot, the dialogue, particularly the way the players talk during the games and in the locker rooms, is unflinchingly realistic; it’s unashamedly profane and has the ring of authenticity. Even more surprising is the fact that it’s written by a woman, Nancy Dowd, who would pen the Oscar-winning story treatment for Coming Home (1978) the following year.
Dowd modeled her dialogue on tapes that were recorded by her brother Ned, a former hockey player, behind closed doors and on team buses. In fact, Ned played hockey for the Johnstown Jets, who served as a model for the fictitious Charlestown Chiefs in the film. Ned was also cast in the film as a wild and intimidating player for a rival team (the Syracuse Bulldogs) named Ogle Ogilthorpe, who was reputedly inspired by Bill “Goldie” Goldthorpe, a forward for the Syracuse Blazers and one of the most feared players in the league.
In The Films of George Roy Hill by Andrew Horton, Dowd revealed that one of her main objectives in Slap Shot was, “To show that the level of violence we have in our entertainment is the thing that prevents people, especially men, from growing up.” This is not only evident in the way Dowd depicts team members like the Hanson brothers, a roughneck trio who are first seen demolishing a coke machine, but also in the way she explores the relationships between the team members and the women in their lives. While the Hanson Brothers are clearly more interested in playing with toy trains than hockey groupies, the other players don’t fare much better in the bedroom despite their locker room boasts and bravado. (The Hanson Brothers, by the way, are played by real-life hockey player brothers Jeff and Steve Carlson and David Hanson).
Reggie, who initiates an affair with the wife (Lindsay Crouse) of his star player Ned (Michael Ontkean), is driven more by the need to manipulate a problematic team member than desire. And most of the players seem to prefer hanging out in bars with their teammates during off time as opposed to staying home with their wives or girlfriends. Clearly part of the problem can be blamed on the punishing lifestyle of the professional athlete – the constant traveling with little time for privacy or self-reflection, a milieu that Hill perfectly captures in Slap Shot. It’s no wonder that some of the hockey wives turn to alcohol or a new sexual partner as solace for their lonely existence.
The depiction of the Chiefs’ management and rise to success in Slap Shot is equally unromanticized. The integrity of the sport is shown to be completely compromised by the bottom line – the need to draw huge crowds and generate large profits. [Spoiler Alert] Even at the end when the Chiefs triumph, the victory is a hollow one because we know most of the players are incapable of change and will continue to live in a state of arrested adolescence. Yet, the film’s cynicism is often refreshing instead of alienating thanks to its frenetic pacing and anarchic humor that erupts in surprising ways such as Ned’s public striptease in the midst of a chaotic game.
Newman was 51 years old at the time and put his body through some brutal punishment during a big fight sequence in the rink. He strained all the muscles on the inside of his thighs and in his abdomen and would later state, “This has been the toughest film I’ve ever done. And believe me, I’ve done some rough ones.” At the same time, the actor loved the challenge and admitted, “Isn’t the movie business great? I’ve learned how to drive a race car, to ride a horse, to play the trombone, to shoot billiards, and to play ice hockey.”
Despite the presence of Paul Newman (still a major box office draw at the time), Slap Shot was not a box office hit and many critics had mixed feelings about the film’s cartoon-like violence and explicit language. Pauline Kael, one of the film’s defenders despite some minor reservations, said it best when she wrote, “Hill is making a farcical hymn to violence. Dede Allen’s hot-foot editing moves the action along from zinger to zinger, and the Maxine Nightingale record “Right Back Where We Started From” punches up the pacing. The beat gives the film a relentlessness, and expletives are sprinkled around like manure to give it funky seasoning…Newman’s likableness in the role is infectious.”
Many high profile film critics, however, found Slap Shot problematic. Richard Schickel of Time magazine wrote, “There is nothing in the history of movies to compare with Slap Shot for consistent, low-level obscenity of expression…Its problem is an ending that abruptly transports the audience from heightened realism to broad satire. It is a defect that Slap Shot shares with the current hit Network – a desire to present an editorial so corrosive that aesthetics, questions of form and proportion simply dissolve.” Variety also called out the inconsistency in tone stating, “Hill is ambivalent on the subject of violence in professional ice hockey. Half the time Hill invites the audience to get off on the mayhem, the other half of the time he decries it.”
One aspect of the film most critics did agree on was Paul Newman’s gutsy, lived-in performance, calling it one of his best. He should have received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work but Slap Shot was ignored in all categories during 1977’s Academy Award race, the year Annie Hall claimed most of the major awards.
Nevertheless, Hill and Newman may have had the last laugh. During the rise of the VHS craze via Blockbuster and other video stores in the late 1980s, Slap Shot developed a loyal cult following that continues to grow year after year.
The other pleasure in watching the film today is to see some of the best Hollywood character actors in the business in key supporting roles such as Strother Martin as the Chief’s publicity obsessed manager, Andrew Duncan as a radio announcer with bad hair, M. Emmet Walsh as an easily manipulated newspaper reporter and Melinda Dillon as a hockey wife turned lesbian after being abused and neglected by her husband.
Another plus is the film’s soundtrack which will make you nostalgic for 70s AM radio when the airwaves were humming with “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” by Leo Sayer, “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me” by Fleetwood Mac, and “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale, which became the movie’s unofficial theme song.
Slap Shot has been released on DVD in numerous editions over the years but one of the more popular releases is the October 2013 multi-format (Blu-ray + digital) edition from Universal Home Entertainment, which includes an audio commentary by the Hanson Brothers and other extras.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other Links of interest: