not in our stars, but in ourselves
34/52: A movie someone told you to see
Recently – I don’t remember why – I asked my boyfriend what he considers to be the greatest sports movie. It’s sort of its own genre, even if they’re usually lumped into broader categories like “drama” or “comedy”, and he knows enough about sports and film to know what’s good, and what’s not. He reflected for a moment or two, and said, “Slap Shot.” Since then, he’s been eager to get me to see it. “I think you’d really like it,” he kept saying. “It’s incredibly funny.” Privately, I wondered if perhaps he was overselling it (since, aside from Mighty Ducks, there aren’t a hell of a lot of movies about hockey, and since he – a former hockey goalie – was perhaps nostalgic about it for that reason), but I agreed. Sure, why the hell not.
Reader, my boyfriend was right. Slap Shot is terrific. Aside from A League of Their Own and Cool Runnings, I tend not to enjoy sports movies. It’s partly because I don’t understand much about sports, and partly because the few movies I have seen were blatantly sentimental. They’re guy-cry movies: made by and for men who don’t express their feelings, unless it’s sports-related, in which case it’s acceptable. If I’m going to watch a movie to induce some kind of crying jag, I’ll stick with Douglas Sirk. Thankfully, Slap Shot is entirely unsentimental, and pretty goshdarn funny to boot.
Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is a player and coach for the Charlestown Chiefs, a minor league hockey team in a depressed little factory town. The Chiefs aren’t an especially good team, and Reggie worries that rumors of the town mill closing could spell doom for the team if they don’t start winning. He’s even more worried when the team’s manager, McGrath (Strother Martin), signs the Hanson brothers: three nerds who look like the Peacock brothers from that creepy incest family episode of The X-Files and bring their toy cars with them everywhere they go. Reggie decides that the best way to save the team is to encourage them to start fights with the other team’s players, distracting them long enough for the Chiefs to score goals, and providing cheap thrills for the audience as well. Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), the Chiefs’ top scorer, doesn’t like these new tactics, and voluntarily remains benched rather than participate. Nevertheless, the Chiefs rise from the bottom of the league. On the eve of a championship game, Reggie tracks down the team’s owner. He’s shocked to discover that she’s a woman, even if he’s also titillated at first; but he’s downright dismayed when she reveals that she intends to fold the team so she can get a tax write-off, since that would be bigger than any profits she could bring in from selling the team somewhere else. Realizing that the championship game will be the last for the Chiefs, and for himself, Reggie instructs the boys to lay off the fistfights. They’ll win, but they’ll win by “old-time hockey” – not by dirty tricks. However, it turns out that there are NHL scouts in the stands, and they’ve come to see just the kind of scrappy fighting Reggie wanted to avoid. An all-out brawl ensues on the ice – with Ned abstaining, until he notices his estranged wife in the stands. He skates out, and strips* on the ice, eventually distracting all the players from their various fistfights:
One of the goons on the other team (the one complaining about how it’s “offensive”) punches the referee, and the referee declares the Chiefs the winners. Victory!
There are so many great things about Slap Shot. I’m sorry I waited so long to see it. For one thing, Reggie’s sartorial choices throughout are nothing short of fierce and flawless.
It was 1977, folks. Fashion was completely batshit insane, and Paul Newman apparently loved it. For another thing, George Roy Hill directed. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember his previous efforts with Newman: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Hill has exactly the right touch for this kind of wry humor. He lets all the jokes shine, and he gives the more serious moments their proper weight. However, I think the greatest thing about Slap Shot has to be the script itself. And get this: it’s by a woman! That’s right, folks. Nancy Dowd, Oscar-winning screenwriter (who was often uncredited, or credited under a male pseudonym on other projects), wrote Slap Shot after seeing the kind of madness her minor-league hockey player brother got into. Dowd’s understanding of the sport, and of human nature, imbue the script with the kind of vitality you don’t often see in sports movies. These aren’t cardboard cutouts making predictably record-setting shots; these are a bunch of weirdos and screw-ups making somewhat flawed (if ultimately effective) shots while getting into dumb, macho fights. She even includes a couple of French Canadian players; my boyfriend, half of whose family hails from Quebec, confirms not only that her French Canadians are accurately drawn – but that the movie is legendary and beloved up north. And while the “side ho” (for want of a better term) may be a common occurrence for traveling sports teams, Dowd even treats the groupies with respect and dignity. They are – golly gee! – human beings. Why aren’t all sports movies written by women? Furthermore, despite women’s reputation for being overly emotional, Dowd’s writing does laps around most male screenwriters attempting the same thing. There are dirty jokes, sight gags, complicated relationships, and payoffs that feel earned. There’s no schlock here. There are no nice, tidy, undeserved endings. Unrealistic, maybe, but not undeserved.
A great script can’t do much without actors bringing it to life, of course, and another great thing about Slap Shot is that everyone looks like he’s having a great goddamn time. Newman said it was the most fun he’d ever had making a movie (and considering that he and Joanne Woodward got together while shooting The Long Hot Summer, that’s saying something). It shows. And while Ontkean is an actual actor** in addition to a former hockey star, most of the guys playing hockey players in Slap Shot were, in fact, real hockey players. Getting athletes to act in movies can be a painfully stilted affair, but between Hill’s direction, Dowd’s script, and the wise decision to let Newman and Ontkean do the dramatic heavy lifting, the authenticity of the rest of the guys is a huge asset. They act like a real team. They don’t feel like actors who’ve painstakingly learned how to skate and shoot for the close-ups, while letting professionals do it in long shots; and while that kind of phoniness might not have been fatal in this movie, it’s wonderful that no one thought to bother. The other teammates get to deliver jokes, and then to skate around – things that most hockey players can do without too much of a problem.
*The musical piece the band plays, creatively titled “The Stripper”, was also used to great effect in a sketch that I personally think is one of Monty Python’s best:
(It cuts off the very end, but you get the idea. Who knew Terry Jones had moves like that?)
**You cannot convince me that Slap Shot isn’t the origin story of Ontkean’s most famous role, Sheriff Harry S. Truman of Twin Peaks. Dowd deliberately avoided setting the movie in a “real” place. Apparently, she had in mind somewhere in Pennsylvania, but the generic quality of “Charlestown,” the very un-mid-Atlantic greenery in the dead of winter, the resemblance McGrath shares with Pete “There’s a fish in the percolator!” Martell – it all screams Twin Peaks to me, and I hope David Lynch gives credit where credit is due, someday. Maybe in the new season, Truman and Killer Bob will play a hockey match for Cooper’s soul, or something.