If you were a little girl in the 1970s like I was, you probably loved “Ice Castles” and watched it a million times — whether or not you’d ever actually set foot on the ice yourself.
You know that aspiring figure-skating champion Lexie Winston (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is going to take a hard fall while landing a jump that leaves her nearly totally blind, just as she’s on the brink of superstardom, yet you’re gripped with suspense as it’s about to happen. You know she’ll trip on the congratulatory roses tossed from the crowd once she stages her hard-fought comeback, and that her hockey-player boyfriend, Nick (Robby Benson), will walk onto the ice to lead her to safety before stunned onlookers. (His closing line, “We forgot about the flowers,” has an understated poignancy.)
Merely clicking on the link to this story probably has put the “Ice Castles” theme song, “Through the Eyes of Love,” in your head, and it’ll probably stay there for the rest of the week. (You’re welcome.) Like so much about the film, the soaring ballad is so completely of its time: a Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager collaboration, sung by Melissa Manchester, which earned an Oscar nomination for best original song.
Clearly, I have a ton of fond memories of this movie, but I hadn’t seen it in a really long time and I hadn’t seen it since my son and I started figure skating ourselves a year ago. (Not that we skate together — although that could make for some awesomely awkward, “Arrested Development”-style creepiness.) And so when I saw that the New Beverly Cinema was showing “Ice Castles” last night on a double bill with the Richard Dreyfuss-Amy Irving piano romance “The Competition” (which I’d never seen), I knew I had to go, even if it meant sitting by myself and crying alone like a loser. (Thankfully, my fellow critic and dear friend Amy Nicholson joined me.)
I was curious to see whether it still held the same emotional impact that it did when I was a romantic little girl in 1979 — whether nostalgia would win out over my more critical instincts, or whether it would hold up despite seeming so dated. Looking back, my fellow critics were not terribly kind to “Ice Castles.” It’s at 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with my dear, departed friend, Roger Ebert, giving it two stars out of four and saying: “One of the melancholy aspects of `Ice Castles’ is the quality of talent that’s been brought to such an unhappy enterprise.”
What I discovered in revisiting “Ice Castles” is that it’s pure sports-movie formula about a gifted athlete who rises and falls and rises again, but it’s got such strong performances and a vivid sense of place that it makes you want to root for this underdog to succeed. Despite the inherent melodrama of the story, director and co-writer Donald Wrye stages and shoots it all in a lean, unfussy way. (Wrye also directed a 2010, direct-to-DVD remake of “Ice Castles,” which I’ve never seen and wish I didn’t even know about.) His low-angle camerawork during Lexie’s performances and Nick’s hockey games gives those scenes a natural, propulsive energy. And he doesn’t rely too heavily on blurry images to give us the sensation of Lexie’s muted perspective, but does so just enough to indicate her disorientation and fear.
The fact that an actual figure skater plays the lead role — not an actress pretending to skate — lends a great deal of authenticity. Johnson had skated competitively and performed with the Ice Capades before making her film debut here. Her character experiences a massive arc, requiring her to show a great deal of range, and Johnson rises to the challenge admirably. She’s vibrant and appealing, which goes a long way.
It helps a great deal that Johnson’s got such strong support around her, including Benson as her playful but supportive boyfriend, Tom Skerritt as her overprotective, widower father and the great Colleen Dewhurst as a cantankerous former skating champion who now runs the bowling alley/ice rink in small-town Waverly, Iowa, and serves as Lexie’s coach. (Please tell me that such places actually exist in real life.) Jennifer Warren brings sophistication and smarts to the role of the big-time coach who plucks Lexie from obscurity and places her on a path to stardom.
But the one element that really clanged for me this time was Lexie’s fling with the sports reporter (David Huffman) who’s tracking her meteoric rise: a) She’s only 16 and he’s got to be in his 30s, and b) he’s doing a series of pieces on her and then squiring her around to high-profile events. Just icky all around.
And in retrospect, the choreography and costumes all look so quaint. Lexie’s big move is a double axel and she tries to prove she belongs with the big-city girls by landing a triple; these days, triple-triple jump combinations are standard for elite skaters like Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold. Lexie’s signature blue dress with the prim, white collar is meant to be old-fashioned and set her apart as a farm girl, but even the fancy, bedazzled dresses the top skaters wear look hilariously cheesy today.
But the chance at greatness — the aspiration toward being the absolute best at something — still resonates, regardless of aesthetic trappings. And that’s why “Ice Castles” still soars today.