[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
Slap Shot has provoked such solemn head-wagging over its failure to take a hard line, one way or the other, on the issue of sports (good, clean, manly, by-the-rules competition) vs. spectator bloodsports (decent American games—hockey in this instance—turned into vicious slugfests to parallel the psychic violence in the stands and in Our Society) that I can only conclude someone has been taking George Roy Hill seriously all these years. Why else start complaining about the absence of anything resembling moral rigorousness or a sense of narrative ethics? Surely not because Butch and Sundance only said “Oh, shit!” when plummeting down the cliffside to the rapids, whereas everyone belonging to or in the neighborhood of the Charlestown Chiefs employs every four-, ten-, and twelve-letter word in the language with the carefree abandon of yapping puppies. So OK, Slap Shot snickers into its own armpit about those crass owners and empty-skulled sportscasters and rummy fans, and then taps the oafish violence on the ice for considerable physical and/or comic exhilaration. In this case I found the moral queasiness easy to ignore, partly because I learned long ago to expect this from Hill, partly because the time to make a federal case of it was back in his more pretentious days—but mostly because Slap Shot is extremely funny, full of rowdy life and business, and irresistibly goodnatured; and you can count on the fingers of one hand all the recent movies of which that could be said, and still have enough fingers left to play cat’s cradle.
The film is particularly interesting as a Paul Newman picture in which the star gets to exercise his penchant for de-glamorizing himself without, for once, turning his performance into a social-consciousness exemplum or an act of self-denigration. The aging player-coach he portrays is a raunchy jock (like almost all his teammates), venal, sexist, not very bright. Newman creates him for what he is, without sermonizing and without denying him his broad, likably evil good humor, his tremendous—if utterly unsophisticated—joie de vivre. The rest of the nonstellar cast matches his vigor and fairness. Michael Ontkean merits special praise as the slightly-smarter-than-his-buddies player with the most acutely developed ambivalence toward the game, and manages to keep the viewer in touch with his mood and movements even when the script treatment of his character vacillates between convenient ellipsis and middling-heavy editorializing. Altman find Allan Nicholls is especially successful at serving up the bounteous scatology with convincing spontaneity and socio-psychological precision (his pained “Fuckin’ embarrassing!” as he listens to some youthful additions to their jaded team giving out with lockerroom gung-ho is priceless), and Brad Sullivan is triumphantly scuzzy as the team’s sex fiend; one expects him to be followed about by a semi-permanent attendant whose responsibility it is to wipe the drool off his nether lip every few minutes, as a token gesture toward public decency.
The people who made this movie are not unaware that the dynamics of macho in-groups separated from their womenfolk with regularity and frequency not only pose the titillating prospect for peeking behind all the buddy-buddy posturing but virtually demand the contemporary filmmaker/social commentator take that peek. The strutting rink studs who wonder whether a man with a bisexual wife automatically turns into a fairy never question the lifestyle that obliges them to spend many nights rocked to sleep on a team bus with their heads on one another’s shoulders—an image Dede Allen cuts to after a scene of the team wives discussing their various means of coping with the rhythms of professional desertion. If the cut sounds forced and nudgy, then the description is unfair to the film. Slap Shot‘s movement, thanks in large measure to Allen, has the simple, robust, forward momentum of one of the jukebox tunes that provide its music score; its insights are available to the viewer without violating the limited, curiously innocent consciousness of its characters.
One of the film’s unexpected bonanzas—unexpected aside from the surprising fact that this raunchy, male-dominated movie was written by a woman—is a clutch of beautifully realized female roles. Kathryn Walker has a fine, edgy, bitterly funny scene as a handsome suburban widow whose gutsy self-possession and amused sizing-up of the preposterous, leather-suited Newman are tremendously attractive—until Newman, and we, learn that she’s lethally casual about the probable fates of the team members in the event that she sells the Chiefs. Jennifer Warren, that magnificent Floridian of Night Moves, perfectly catches the abiding affection Newman’s about-to-be-ex-wife feels for him, and her sensible resolution that the marriage is over and is going to stay over. And now I know who that terrific girl was who got the CRP employees list for Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men—Lindsay Crouse: it’s a pleasure to be able to report that once again she has managed to invest a scriptorally slight role—as Ontkean’s neglected wife—with a compelling, mysterious intensity well beyond the call of duty and into the realm of fascination. In short, Slap Shot affords such an abundance of good things that those comically belated protests over George Roy Hill’s moral-ethical slipperiness almost seem extraneous and silly. The extent to which you share those concerns will determine whether you find Slap Shot a shamelessly funny movie or a shamefully funny one.
Direction: George Roy Hill. Screenplay: Nancy Dowd. Cinematography: Vic Kemper. Art direction: Henry Bumstead. Editing: Dede Allen. Musical supervision: Elmer Bernstein. Production: Robert J. Wunsch, Stephen Friedman.
The players: Paul Newman, Michael Ontkean, Jennifer Warren, Lindsay Crouse, Strother Martin, Jerry Houser, Allan Nicholls, Brad Sullivan, Yvon Barette, Yves Ponton, Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson, Dave Hanson, Stephen Mendillo, Arthur Duncan, M. Emmet Walsh, Kathryn Walker, Melinda Dillon, Swoosie Kurtz, Matthew Cowles.
© 1977 Richard T. Jameson