Monday, June 11th, 2012

The Before-Its-Time Raunchiness of 'Slap Shot'

We can do anything we want. We’re college students!

–Tagline for Animal House, 1978

So went the battle cry of the Deltas, the “worst” fraternity at Faber College and the anarchic scourge of its campus administration. When it was released in 1978, Animal House was a low-budget college movie with a cast of mostly unknowns that went on to bust box-office records, launch a few careers, and rocket the genre of gross-out comedies into the mainstream. By today’s standards Animal House now seems incredibly tame, almost endearingly so. But when it first hit theaters it was heralded as a subversive punch from the counterculture. This was less a reflection of the film’s politics than of its gleeful embrace of the obscene.

And yet a year before Animal House was celebrated for unleashing the Deltas upon the American zeitgeist, another comedy — this one with a high profile director and bona-fide movie star attached to it — was received with confusion and disdain for its similarly raunchy aesthetic. Directed by George Roy Hill and starring the venerable Paul Newman, Slap Shot was regarded upon its release in 1977 as a mere cultural oddity, and it was not until years later that its reputation was resuscitated into that of an enduring cult classic.

The gritty portrayal of a depraved minor league hockey team that resorts to game time violence in order to boost attendance was a stark departure in tone for the team of Newman and Hill. The two had previously collaborated on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, and in doing so forged one of the most iconic and profitable partnerships in cinematic history. In fact, it was due to the success of these twin ventures that Hill at one point enjoyed the distinction of being the only director to have made two of the top ten all-time grossing films. So when he veered off from the romantic adventurism he had become famous for to focus on the provincial barbarism of the Charlestown Chiefs, and enlisted Newman as their disreputable player-coach, critics disapproved and audiences stayed away.

The bulk of the criticism was launched squarely at the film’s overt vulgarity. “There is nothing in the history of movies,” lamented Richard Schickel in TIME, “to compare with Slap Shot for consistent low-level obscenity of expression.” In Sports Illustrated Frank Deford moved beyond the film’s language to indict its entire hedonistic ethos. “It is a gratuitous performance,” he wrote of Newman as the sleazy veteran Reggie Dunlop, “as the violence is gratuitous, as the vulgarity is, as even the sex is.” The unapologetic crudity that would a year later be celebrated in Animal House was for Slap Shot listed as a liability.

What may have turned the rowdy spirit sour for some critics was the definite harshness that infused it. Though Slap Shot trampled into theaters with an enthusiastic swagger, it smoldered with a mean darkness as well. While the players brawl and drink and carouse, their western Pennsylvania town goes under, their marriages collapse, and their future prospects become increasingly dimmer by the day. An air of scrambling desperation pervades throughout. Even our protagonist Reggie Dunlop doesn’t hesitate to sell out his teammates in order to secure his own future and get the hell out of town.

John Landis, the director of Animal House, recognized the risks of pursuing such a raw, cynical sensibility. Observing that the first draft of his movie was too aimlessly misanthropic, he set about softening the Delta’s offensiveness and reigning in their anarchy. “Everybody in the original script was a pig,” he explained to The New York Times. “I thought, well, let's think of all the positive aspects of fraternity, which was basically family, and give that to the Deltas. And put all of the negatives, basically Nazis, and put that in the other house."

Slap Shot contains fewer such distinctions. The entire Federal League in which the Chiefs compete is in effect a sprawling, raunchier Delta House with hundreds of members getting paid to run amok and no Omegas present to act as foils. They might not be college students, but they’re still doing whatever they want — leaving behind them a trail of mass destruction. Also absent are any vestiges of a restraining authority. The fans cheer the carnage (even at times inflicting it themselves), the manager turns a blind eye to the violence, and even the game announcer delights in the bloodshed. “Bring the kids!” he insists. “We got entertainment for the whole family!”

Though he takes a few shots at the heartless executives who coldly execute the Chiefs’ business affairs, when it comes the team’s behavior Hill assumes a position of detached objectivity. He neither endorses nor condemns the persistent violence and debauchery, choosing instead to view them simply as intransigent elements of a profession and an era. But the director’s affection for the players themselves does come through, and he infuses them with a humanity that struggles to express itself from beneath their more sadistic impulses. There is something almost a little sweet about Steve Hanson, one of three brutalizing brothers recruited from up north to revitalize the Chiefs, wanting nothing more than to enjoy the national anthem shortly after instigating a full out war during the pre-game warm up.

Perhaps the hilarity of Slap Shot was initially overlooked because the film succeeded altogether too well in capturing the gritty desperation of its era, a time in which the nation’s cities were descending into financial ruin and violent hysteria. Even New York City seemed in irreversible decline; in 1977 alone a blackout led to widespread looting, the city teetered on bankruptcy, and the Bronx was burning. Tellingly, the makers of Animal House decided to remove their movie from the turmoil of the age and set it in 1962, what they deemed “the last innocent year” of the country. But Slap Shot confronts the looming despair head on. Now, from the safe distance of over three decades, we can sit back and view Slap Shot as a bridge between the grim urban dramas of the ‘70s and the good natured raunch-fests of the ‘80s, a vital part of the vanguard that helped decimate Hollywood’s prudish comedic sensibility.

Good seats are still available.

Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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  • BonzoGal

    I just watched Slap Shot for the first time a few months ago, and I think if I had seen in in my 20s I'd have dismissed it as a crude violence-fest.  Seeing it now, though, in my 40s, I see it as a satire of the entertainment industry's love of violence.  ("Entertainment" including sports, natch.)  This is a team of absolute losers who can't win because they play old-style hockey in a world of teams who have the money to recruit monsters for players.  It isn't until they go full-out chaotic in their playing that they succeed as far as success counts in that world.  The dying town that goes nuts for the team is along for the same blow-out of a ride.

    It's a dark, crude, often sexist film that made me laugh my ass off.  Paul Newman is perfect as a guy who is just starting to realize he isn't the star he used to be… and maybe he never was.

  • Mattmccabe

    how about the bad news bears in a similar vein. no kids movie (or movie that a ton of kids saw) would ever have that sort of misanthropic cast of adults. both movies are pretty amazing as time capsules.

  • Koyoeres

    Disappointed, but not surprised, that this post contains no mention of screenwriter Nancy Dowd, who wrote the screenplay for this movie based on the real-life experiences of her brother.

    The key to understanding Slap Shot is that it was written by a woman.

    • Testpattern

      Boy, that's not essentialist.

  • Prommie

    Glaringly absent is any recognition of Altman's MASH as a precursor?

  • Backslider

    This movie played 3 times a year on Channel 38 in Boston in the early 80s. It was as much a part of any New England Boyhood as The Electric Company or Sesame Street.

  • Former_scribe

    A woman wrote that authentic locker-room talk (with the help of a hidden tape recorder); Paul Newman did his own skating; Melinda Dillon ("Suzanne") made an impressive contribution; Michael Ontkean, arguably the central character in terms of theme, delivered the film's satirical payoff memorably; Strother Martin had rarely been funnier as the owner; Lindsay Crouse (who has been an entertainer since forever) I just love, especially in this and in the very different role she played in "House of Games"; M. Emmet Walsh put his quality $.02 in; the Hansens went on to careers with the Detroit Red Wings and other clubs. I knew this film was something special when I first saw it, though I'm only now beginning to understand why (with the help of this great essay). I'm sorry the pop songs from the theatrical release disappeared from the first videos; "Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word" and "Right Back Where We Started From" seemed especially appropriate, and I missed them when they weren't there. (I hope they are again on DVD.) A really fun movie, and I'm only a lukewarm hockey fan. Four stars out of four.

    • Kickingdrummernc

      Nancy Dowd's brother, Ned (who portrayed Ogie Oglethorpe in the film), actually played for the Johnstown Jets of the NAHL.  It was his stories, and those of other players they enlisted for the film, that helped her write the script.