So I ended up with several years of "Billboards top hits" in my iTunes (which means all those horrid Billy Joel 50s nostalgia songs, ugh), and also means I've had "You Light Up My Life" coming at me, and suddenly it occurred: OMG, I need to watch Ice Castles RIGHT NOW. A 70s teen melodrama sounded AMAZING, and it was swiftly on its way. And soon after popping it in, it was apparent that "You Light Up My Life" is not from this film at all, but it's okay, because this film has "Looking Through the Eyes of Love" to replace it, sung by 70s embodiment Melissa Manchester. Turns out "You Light Up My Life" is from the film of the very same name, starting Didi Conn, and which is hurtling toward my DVD player at this very minute. So, you know, life could be worse.
This film opens with images of bare branches in a snowy landscape, a gauzy, out-of-focus figure skater spinning in the background, as the first tinkly piano notes of the theme, by Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager sound. The skater is Alexis "Lexie" Winston, comely 16-year-old of Waverly, Iowa, and she is soon joined by her beau, Robby Benson as Nick. He has returned home after quitting medical school. We also meet Lexie's trainer, Colleen Dewhurst as Beulah, and Lexie's dad Marcus, played by Tom Skerritt. Lexie wants to go compete in some regional figure skating contest, but Marcus won't allow it because Lexie's mother also tried to be a competitive skater, but ended up ensnared in an ice-making machine which tore her torso from her legs and dragged her twitching corpse, trailing bloody entrails, across the ice in front of a crowd of horrified on onlookers. No, I'm just kidding. But she tried to be a skater and failed, and is dead now, and Marcus won't let the same thing happen to his precious daughter, who is All He's Got! Obviously, he soon relents and Lexie goes.
At the competition, the other girls make fun of her prim outfit, which I think used to be her mother's, for added symbolism. Then Lexie goes out to skate and, dear reader, this is when the movie got me on its side, because her routine is genuinely thrilling and the tension is nail-biting. I was sitting there like "If that's a double, they're doing an amazing job," but no, turns out star Lynn-Holly Johnson is an actual figure skater trying to break into acting (and was 20 when playing a 16yo here), who went on to be horrid in the horrid film The Watcher in the Woods before dropping the "Lynn" from her name and fronting the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood. So Lexie skates a flawless routine yet inexplicably gets low scores, and the crowd loves her. You're all confused--like, do the judges hate Iowans? Is the whole thing rigged? But it turns out that in the original cut, Lexie had a big fall in the middle of her routine, which was edited out of home video versions, for some reason, and now you have the disconnect described. Whatever, one gets over it.
At the competition was skating talent scout Deborah Mackland, played by thick-haired Jennifer Warren, who is one of those people you've seen a lot (if you're over 40) but can't quite place where. I've looked at her resume and I still can't tell where, although she was on TV a lot (and she did NOT duet with Joe Cocker on "(I've Had) The Time of my Life," because that was Jennifer WARNES). She's kind of a Katharine Ross-alike, with the crucial difference that she can ACT, and frankly she blew me away with her performance here. I'm now really bummed that her career didn't get her the attention she deserves (which I had evidence of, as she was also in another movie I happened to have at home at the time, D-grade 80s zombie film Mutant). Here's to you, Jennifer! Anyway, she comes around with an offer to train Lexie for the big time, even though by all standards she is too old at 16. Then follow the expected scenes in which Dad says no but everyone agrees she's got to TRY and Dad says "I don't want you turnin' out like your dead mama, bloody intestines draggin' all across the ice like... oh GOD!" Actually he doesn't, but I think you can see that my version would be a lot more fun. Anyway, obviously Lexie goes. Meanwhile, Nick goes off to try out for some minor hockey team.
SPOILERS > > >
Lexie moves into a training dorm where she meets other girls in training. Montages follow. Meanwhile, Nick is told that anyone who has a brain doesn't belong playing hockey, and it's either going to be some shitty third-string team or nothing. He gives up and... just hangs around town, I guess, I never really got a good sense of what he does. At practice, Lexie does some kind of giga-axel or something that is far beyond her skill level, and Deborah takes her for a ride in her hot 70s convertible and screams at her and makes her cry. Then Deborah is in her giant 70s fur with her giant 70s hair in some spectacularly 70s "luxury" hotel restaurant, reminding me why I want to marry the 70s, and tells Lexie that she's gotta WANT it! She's gotta GRAB it! She's gotta OWN it! Privately, Deborah goes to this TV dude she knows, Brian, who looks very much like Paul Rudd in Anchorman, and tells him this chick has natural talent. They arrange to follow Lexie around with TV cameras and essentially make a proto-reality show about her training. It goes on and on and soon the other girls are jealous of all the attention Lexie is getting.
Before you know it, Lexie is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She talks to Nick by phone, but he's afraid her fame will cause his penis to fall off. There's a big TV special, in which Lexie watches a Russian skater fall numerous times (good thing she picked appropriately dire music), and the pressure is on... then Lexie delivers a flawless routine! She's a nationwide SMASH! Then, in a solitary backstage moment, Lexie caresses her own budding breast! I was a little shocked and impressed, as frankly I don't remember anything like that in the remakes of Fame or Sparkle. Then TV guy Brian comes in and... they start making out! And you're like "Um, I think she's 16, right? And he's an adult? And this is appropriate how?"
Then, the regional finals! And Lexie executes another flawless performance! And she wins! She's the toast of the town! And by now I was starting to get back into nail-biting tension because I knew that Lexie is going to get injured sometime here, and I just knew this wicked movie would make it at one of the most emotionally-disarming moment. She survives. But! She is kissing her inappropriately much older BF (who we've also had hints is Deborah's BF?) when who's there, but NICK! So he's all upset, and they go to the big after-party, featuring an amazing array of 70s fashions and hairstyles, but Lexie is all bummed because of Nick, her greasy, pimply, down-home loser beau (at least her inappropriate older BF has a JOB), causing her to stare in deep fascination at an ice sculpture (and stare, and STARE), then she sees a little ice rink right outside, and you know instantly--THIS is where she buys it.
So she goes out, and is skating free, alone in the night, just a girl and the ice, blah, blah, and the whole party has stopped to stare at her as she skates without an audiences, just for herself (OMG, I even adore the 70s' CLICHES!!!), when she trips on a GIANT black cord (you're telling me she didn't see that?) and her body goes flying into a nearby garbage truck, just as it's closing, and she is neatly severed at the waist, just like her mama! But she's still alive until they reverse the truck, so they keep it together long enough to fly the folks out from Iowa to talk to her upper half, after which they reactivate the scoop and Lexie dies, her bloody spleen slipping through Dad's fingers as he weeps bitter tears. Nope, that's not what happens, but again, HOW amazing would this movie be if I had made it? Plus, it would be over by now.
No, she trips over the cord and lands gently in these feather-light lawn chairs, which we are shown over and over (some of them even tip onto her!) as if, simply by repetition, the accident will seem worse than it is. Nope guys, I think she's going to emerge with some light scratches at best, perhaps some gentle bruising, but NO: She's BLIND! She's got a debilitating brain injury!
So the accident is clearly End of Part One, and let's stop here because this is also the end of almost everything good about this movie, including the fabulous Ms. Warren. Now, ironic as I've been, I was actually totally into part one, and not only that, I think there are many things about it that are actually GOOD. For one, the skating is amazing. It's a triumph that Johnson can do her own skating, and she's wonderful. You really get involved in the skating scenes, and they have a good tension because you're wrapped up in wanting Lexie to triumph. Johnson is also, ummm, let's just say that her natural simplicity, the same one that sunk her in Watcher in the Woods, totally WORKS here, and she seems like a genuinely simple, good person who is justly getting the attention she deserves. Which generates a LOT of goodwill. And a lot of the cliches are done well, including convincing dad to let her go skate, and the tough trainer with the heart of gold, and the promise of fame and having one's natural talent discovered, that one gets into and the movie is enjoyable.
The fun is promptly over in the second half, after a scene in the hospital saying that Lexie's blood clot is getting better (so she's gonna be fine? No, it's just dropped) and Deborah goes out with a bang as a technician offhandedly says "I heard she was very promising," and Deborah acidly repeats: "Yes, she was very promising." Then we're back in Iowa, and don't see Lexie for a while, as we have coverage of dad cracking up. Then he has some harsh words with Bulah, who has melted the ice rink so we can all feel the emotional anguish, and it's numerous cases of people crustily telling others that dammit, they've gotta just soldier through and move on!
Lexie gets a featured mental anguish scene as Beulah, who has to tackle all the emotions with her hard-earned prairie wisdom, finds her in the attic with her mother's old sweater on (never introduced before), as if now she has become her mother, and is a failure. There are reassuring words, then Beulah tries to get the sweater off because goddammit you are not a loser, and Lexie won't give it, because she FAILED! and it soon becomes a physical fight, Lexie makes some quite emotional faces (see photo) and hard truths are faced--head on! It's not bad, or let's say, any worse than anything else, it's just that it's all cliches, and unlike the first half, they're not working.
Then Dad takes Lexie out onto the ice and coaches her because goddammit, he lost one woman, he's not going to lose two. Then who should come skating up but Nick, who has done a lot of hard thinking about, you know, stuff and everything, and he helps Alexis skate, and he challenges her to have more confidence--maybe even pushing her too far! To the point where she says she HATES him! And then he say "Well, now we're even!" and you are like "Oooh, Sa-NAP!” but hey Nick, you were cooling on Lexie once she started getting famous and you were looking at a life of flipping burgers (he still is), right? Anyway, they've talked it out, and now they're back together. There is footage of them gliding in unison, not unlike swans, you might say, as an orchestral version of "Looking Through the Eyes of Love," and you're like "I GET IT! Looking through the eyes of love because she's BLIND!"
So now a Nick is in the ice rink coaching her, as Beulah stands back and makes sagely approving faces. And you're like "But Nick doesn't have any figure skating experience." Then Dad takes Nick out a'huntin', and tells him "Dammit, boy! You've gotta commit and stick to something!" And you're like "So, did Nick have a problem with this before? Oh, I guess he quit medical school. So now he's a chronic quitter?" The truth is that the film is just hurling anything that might generate the tiniest emotional fizz, regardless of whether the film or characters support it. This reaches the apex when Nick is arguing that Lexie has to start training again, and Beulah says "Who's she gotta do it for, her--or YOU?" But the moment wasn't prepared for, Nick has never seemed that way, it's just to goose the emotion. Tom Skerritt, who is a solid, decent actor regardless of how some now regard him, finally agrees to let Lexie train again, and he makes the scene work.
So they go rent a big ice rink and Nick is training Lexie, and you're like "BUT NICK HAS NO FIGURE-SKATING EXPERIENCE!!!" but no matter! It wouldn't be romantic if Beulah trained her. So they train, and before you know it it's the big finals or regional championships of whatever. Can I ask one other thing? This girl was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. This girl was--as far as I know--the one and only female skater to get a TV show JUST about her training and development. And she has this tiny accident and the media just DROPS her? NO ONE stop by Iowa to find out how she's doing, or what the story is? Even in 1979? Anyway, Lexie has a big scene with the lech TV guy who is committing statutory rape, and he tells her "He really loved her." What? They barely had four seconds together. This movie is just spewing out emotional scenes and hoping most will stick.
So Lexie doesn't want the crowd to know that she's blind, and if you have a brain you'll know that this is so we can have the big emotional catharsis at the end in which the audience finds out she's blind and cheers. There is some tension, then extra-long tearful moments after her name is called before she goes to the ice (people are WAITING) and then a super-long emotional moment as she stands still on the ice for eons before her song starts, coming to an internal RECKONING. Then she skates a flawless routine, and the movie is back to what it does well, developing this tension be having Lexie be GOOD, making you worry she'll fall and screw it up. No, she wins, and the crowd cheers and throws flowers, and on her victory round, she trips on the FLOWERS! And the crowd gasps, realizing she's blind, and then a voice rings out--”They're all gonna laughs at you!" And then Lexie kills them all with her mind, because her brain injury made her telekinetic. Nope, my version again, in the movie Nick comes out and helps her, and the crowd applauds their beautiful devotion, not knowing that Nick is just an attention-whore, and the movie ends.
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All in all, I liked it. It's melodrama, but for the most part they make it effective, and Lynn-Holly Johnson is genuinely charming, and she can skate, and you root for her. There are cliches, but they bring them all to life fairly well and you don't mind so much, at least in the first half. In the second, the contrivances get to be a little too obvious, and it's clear the movie is getting more openly manipulative, but it's still in service of the story, and one doesn't mind that much. I have now seen You Light Up My Life, which clearly demonstrates that it could get much, much worse. If a 70s skating melodrama sounds good to you, I say go for it.
Sure, if you know what you're getting in for.