I just gave a phone interview to an author who is doing a book on George Roy Hill’s “Slap Shot” (1977), one of the most enduring sports-comedies of all time. The writer, Jonathan Jackson, has talked to virtually every surviving key player involved with the film. Could make for a hell of a book.
“Old time hockey! Eddie Shore!” Some of three decades after the release of this consistently crude and in some ways hopelessly outdated film (dig those fashion choices and that music), “Slap Shot” continues to sell well on DVD and has become a perennial favorite of jocks and sports movie fans. I know some moviegoers who weren’t even born when the movie was released, but they love the Hanson brothers like they love other classic comedic characters from the 1970s and 1980s, e.g., Carl Spackler from “Caddyshack,” Bluto from “Animal House” and Thornton Melon from “Back to School.” (And how scary is it that I didn’t have to look up the names of any of those characters?)
“Youngblood” and the “Mighty Ducks” films notwithstanding, “Slap Shot” is perhaps the greatest hockey movie of all time. It captures a long-gone era of minor league hockey when it was populated by bare-knuckled brawlers, broken-down lifers, has-beens—and the occasional rising star. Written by Nancy Dowd (who had more than her share of bare-knuckled battles with studios and directors in her career), “Slap Shot” stars Paul Newman in one of his best and most complex performances as Reggie Dunlop, the truth-bending roustabout/player/coach of the Charlestown Chiefs. When Dunlop learns the Chiefs will be folding at the end of the season, he unleashes the thuggish Hanson brothers on the league—-and the Chiefs go on an unexpected hot streak as Reggie perpetuates the myth a buyer in Florida is going to scoop up the team and move them out of their bleak, mill-town surroundings.
By the mid-1970s, Newman was going gray and was past the “Butch & Sundance” phase of his career. He was only five years away from his masterful performance as the aging, alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin in “The Verdict.” In “Slap Shot,” Newman’s still easily capable of racking up the conquests, but he’s no longer the young stud in the bar. He goes for women of a certain age. He pines for his estranged wife even as he beds others, including the bisexual wife of a rival player. (Information he’s not above using in the heat of battle.) Reggie Dunlop is a vulgar, hard-drinking, manipulative S.O.B., but Newman had earned such goodwill with audiences that he was able to make Reggie empathetic. If Burt Reynolds had played Dunlop, he would have done so with a wink to the camera, as if to say, “Come on. We all know I’m a good guy.” Newman engages in some priceless double-takes and at one point almost seems to be looking at us in one scene—-but he never shies away from Reggie’s numerous failings.
Newman said Reggie Dunlop was one of his favorite characters. One can understand the appeal and the challenge of the role. With Dowd’s script and Hill’s straightforward, confident direction, Newman created one of most surprisingly appealing characters of his magnificent career. I hope they never remake “Slap Shot.” It would be like some young hockey player proclaiming himself the next Golden Jet.