Five-ring Circus

How To Make a Better Figure-Skating Movie

Why can’t they all be as good as The Cutting Edge?

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Also enjoy this Magnum Photos gallery on ice skating.

The Cutting Edge.
The Cutting Edge

Figure skating carries the Winter Olympics. Sure, America has sent 216 athletes to Vancouver, and 201 of them neither figure skate nor ice dance. But each Olympic cycle, figure skating—especially women’s figure skating—earns the highest ratings among U.S. viewers. During the 2006 games in Turin, Italy, 25.7 million Americans tuned in to watch the women’s finals, while prime-time viewership was averaging closer to 20 million. Despite the sport’s popularity, however, movies about figure skating are, quite simply, lousy. The skating is crummy, the writing is crummier, and the leads are without either personality or backbone.

It shouldn’t be this way—the crowd-pleasing sport of Sonja Henie, Michelle Kwan, and Kim Yu-Na is a stunning combination of grace and athleticism. And there’s always plenty of real-life drama surrounding the competition: judging controversies, new upstarts, fading champions, stage moms, eating disorders, drugging, hard-ass coaches. The occasional tire-iron to the knee.

Alas, figure-skating movies tend to take one or two of these elements and blow them wildly out of proportion. In Ice Princess, Ice Castles (both the version from the ‘70s and the remake released this month), and the Cutting Edge franchise—the main figure-skating titles—we’re asked to root for boring, “naturally gifted” skaters who merrily leap over the years of training the sport requires to make it to the top—always, of course, to the disgust of the competition, which invariably consists of catty backstabbers hellbent on Olympic gold.

While few sports movies are entirely realistic—even those based on real events, like Miracle, are played up for dramatic effect—the idea that a hidden talent already most of the way through puberty could triple-axel her way onto the international scene is utterly absurd. And yet it happens again and again: In Disney’s Ice Princess(2005), Casey, our hero, goes from skating on a pond for fun to the nationals in a matter of months. (In a conceit risible even by figure-skating-movie standards, her quick rise to prominence is explained by the fact that she’s a science wiz: All she needs to take her to the top are some physics programs to help her analyze the jumps.) In Ice Castles (first released in 1978 and remade for this Olympic year), 16-year-old Lexie also goes from skating on a pond (she even taught herself a triple axel—a move performed in real life by just a handful of female figure skaters) to the nationals; all she needed was a new coach, a makeover, and some positive media attention. In The Cutting Edge (1992) a man goes from skating on a hockey team to the Olympics pairs competition in short order.

By contrast with our outsider hero, who manages to master the sport within a year of getting acquainted with the toe pick, the villain is always a figure-skating robot, someone with no life outside of the sport and no capacity to understand how someone could conceivably balance skating with dating or schoolwork. This, too, is a tired misconception about the sport. Most of the elite figure skaters today haven’t entirely given up on being teenagers. Rachael Flatt, a 17-year-old competing in the Vancouver Games, seemingly never stops talking about her AP classes and says she hangs out with friends on weekends. Many leading teenage skaters from recent years are, by all accounts, strong students; 2002 gold medalist Sarah Hughes recently graduated from Yale, while her younger sister, also a former Olympian, is currently at Harvard.

These movies could be forgiven a certain lack of realism and tendency toward formula if it was in the service of good drama. But that’s rarely been the case. In addition to being absurdly preternatural in their talents, the heroines of these movies are painfully unlikeable. For all that Ice Castles tries to convince its viewers that Lexie is winsome, she’s actually quite dull—vacillating meekly between what her widowed father wants, what her hunky boyfriend wants, and what her coach wants. Figure skaters can absolutely be boring—the adjective is frequently lobbed at poor Flatt—but even the dull ones must have serious nerve to hurl themselves in the air, appear on international television wearing next to nothing, and withstand the harsh criticism of coaches, judges, and the public.

As a recreational skater, there are only two figure-skating movies that I can watch without wanting to poke myself in the eye with a toe pick: Will Ferrell’s straight-up silly Blades of Glory—which parodied the flamboyant men’s Olympic hopeful Johnny Weir—and the original Cutting Edge. While the film’s reputation has been tarnished somewhat by its nauseating straight-to-DVD sequels, it remains a cult classic and sets a standard that other figure-skating movies should aspire to. For one thing, the leads—figure-skating priss Kate and ex-hockey star Doug—are adults. The older actors give the movie a weight that the others, about and marketed to ‘tweens, are missing. Doug’s transformation from hockey player to figure skater is never fully completed, as he continues to campaign for bigger stunts, more powerful skating, and less feminine costumes. And the backstabbing among competitors is relegated mostly to whispers and the occasional glare—a much more realistic depiction. And while The Cutting Edge indulges in the occasional platitude about reaching for a dream, overall the tone is subdued. Instead of excessive amounts of pining and longing between the destined-to-be-together pair, we get a good bit of caustic bickering. The ending is satisfying but not sappy. And, of course, there’s the famous “toe pick” sequence:

Perhaps the next director who sets out to capitalize on figure skating’s popularity will take the Cutting Edge approach and focus on older skaters. But if he or she insists on telling the story of an up-and-comer, it doesn’t mean the movie has to be awful. Billy Elliot is a fine example of a movie about a young, talented kid struggling to decide whether he wants to pursue his passion seriously: Why not make a coming-of-age figure-skating movie that takes the subject seriously?

To make a watchable figure-skating movie, though, directors can’t just focus on story. They must respect the sport by using real skaters. Having a seasoned skater in the lead role—instead of taking the Ice Princess approach of giving a somewhat athletic actor a crash course in crossovers and mohawks—makes action sequences bearable. As bad as the Ice Castlemovies are, there are at least some good skating performances to watch, because the stars were played by competitive skaters. As important: Get the falls right. All skaters wipe out, at practice and in competition. They get back up and keep skating; they don’t, as so frequently happens in figure-skating movies, just lie there on the ice—unless it’s a truly gruesome mishap.

Sadly, for all the theatricality of their sport, figure skaters don’t tend to have much in the way of acting chops—see Michelle Kwan’s stiff cameos in the new Ice Castles as well as Ice Princess. Perhaps the best way to make a decent figure skating film is to focus on the peripheral stories: the overbearing stage mothers, the terrifying coaches, maybe even the surly Zamboni drivers. A promising story could even be found among the sometimes shady judges who build their lives around the sport. Former skater and Olympic judge Jon Jackson directs withering criticisms at his sport in the book On Edge: Backroom Dealing, Cocktail Scheming, Triple Axels, and How Top Skaters Get Screwed. * You could make a pretty dramatic movie just from that subtitle. Throw in some strong performances from the nonskaters, some well-written backroom intrigue, and some well-choreographed skating from the athletes themselves, and you’ll have a movie that we skating enthusiasts can enjoy without changing the channel when someone else walks into the room. That’s all I’m really asking for.

Correction, March 1, 2010: Due to an editing error, this article incorrectly referred to On Edge as a documentary. It is a book. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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