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Through the Eyes of Love: On the Timelessness of “Ice Castles”

Some movies are both of their time and yet somehow timeless. “Ice Castles”—about a pretty, small-town, working-class teen who aspires to Olympic figure-skating glory, suffers a tragic setback along the way, yet ends up achieving an even greater triumph—is one of those special films. Released in 1978, it has disco-era signposts aplenty: Melissa Manchester’s unbridled rendition of Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s magical Oscar-nominated theme song, “Through the Eyes of Love,” then-It Boy Robby Benson as the hockey hotshot romantic interest and Dorothy Hamill-inspired wedge haircuts galore.

To be honest, the man whose name graces this website did not exactly see this underdog fairy tale through the eyes of love nearly four decades ago. In his review, Roger Ebert observed, “Isn’t there something creepy about an audience that walks in knowing the girl’s going to blind herself, and waits for that to happen?” Perhaps. But “Ice Castles” had a secret weapon: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Lynn-Holly Johnson in her film debut as Lexie. This Ice Capades alum didn’t just skate like an angel. Her greenness as an actress suited her sweet yet ambitious character and lends this Cinderella story a much-needed authenticity.

While it grossed $9.5 million domestic initially—about $35 million when adjusted for inflation—“Ice Castles” has endured as one of the most popular female-driven sports sagas ever. Critics Christy Lemire, Sheila O’Malley and Susan Wloszczyna share their thoughts on why they are on Team Lexie, then and now.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: Why don't we start by talking about the first time we saw “Ice Castles.” What impression did it leave on you?

SHEILA O’MALLEY: I don't remember the first time, but I know it was on television. I didn't see it in the movie theatre. I was too young. I sobbed.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: I feel like I must have seen it on TV for the first time, too. I was 6 when it came out. But I knew I LOVED it.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Weirdly, I remember Robby Benson making the hugest impression on me. Especially that scene where he's talking to her on the phone, and he's only wearing briefs.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: He was super hunky, it's true.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: I'm sorry. I just had to mention it. He had such an androgynous kind of beauty, with almost overblown features, like Travolta as a young man. So to see him standing there, wearing briefs, and being all sensitive on the phone, was far too much for my middle-school self.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: It's such a formulaic sports story, but at that point, there were so few about young women.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Susan, I love your story about seeing it for the first time!

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: I was 23 and just starting my first real newspaper job in Geneva, N.Y. I barely knew anyone there and on my day off, there was a snowstorm. I decided to walk to the theater in town and there was "Ice Castles." It was just the perfect combination of everything for my loneliness. I fell into a reverie. Yes, Robby's tighty whities helped. But there also was something about Lynn-Holly Johnson that was special. She felt authentic, both on the ice and off.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: Because she wasn't a "great" actress. But I'm not sure she needed to be. You're right—there was a purity and naiveté to her that made her authentic.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: I just connected with her. Also, the milieu, given that I was in the Finger Lakes area in a small, working-class town.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: I totally agree with this. She is sweet and sincere and quite believable, I thought, in some very difficult scenes (particularly the one with Colleen Dewhurst in the attic).

CHRISTY LEMIRE: And clearly they needed someone who could actually skate, but also could hold her own opposite those kinds of veterans. Right now, Margot Robbie is training to play Tonya Harding, and while she has the acting part down, she has to learn how to skate—which is even harder, I think.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: They also built in the fact that she was somewhat "behind" the other skaters. A little bit older, self-trained, not as polished. So it worked, I thought. She was good enough to make you believe that audiences would take to her.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: She wasn't a goody-goody girl, either. She had sass and ambition, but never in an obnoxious way. But, since she is 16, I did wonder, seeing the movie again, if she even went to school.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Can we talk about the score? I just re-watched it and had forgotten just how much Marvin Hamlisch's song was used as a motif throughout. It's sentimental, for sure, but dammit it works.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: That Melissa Manchester song gets stuck in my head just thinking about “Ice Castles.”

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Every time that mournful little piano started up, it hit me. It reminded me of that great story Rod Taylor tells about doing a scene in “Young Cassidy” and John Ford came up to him afterwards and said, "You son of a bitch. You made me cry." That's how I felt like sometimes when I responded to the “Ice Castles” theme! It was Pavlovian. I tried to resist! I couldn't!

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Yes, and you hear that soaring score from the moment the movie starts. There is a catch in your throat from that time forward. It does much to elevate “Ice Castles” into this beautiful coming-of-age story that isn't just teenage nonsense.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: It's true! It's so of its time, the way it builds to a crescendo, but it's one of those timeless movie ballads.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: It makes me miss old-fashioned scores, with themes and motifs.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: “Ice Castles” has a really great, gritty sense of place that also keeps it from being teenage nonsense. That town feels so real and so insular. Are there actual bowling alley/ice rink combos in the world?

SHEILA O’MALLEY: I was going to mention that! I totally agree. She really comes from somewhere. It's very real. The snow, the bowling alley, the frozen pond. A boyfriend who plays hockey. I really hope there are such combos. I'd love to visit. Especially if Colleen Dewhurst is running the show, sipping whiskey from a flask.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: She gives this film so much weight, so much emotional heft.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: She is acting her ASS off, if you'll pardon the expression. She's ferocious and filled with emotion and personal regrets and smoking butts and sneaking sips of whiskey at the hockey game. She's awesome.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: In 1976, Dorothy Hamill created a sensation when she won the gold medal in figure skating. I love that so many girls that Lexie competes against have that haircut. But I think a lot of girls were moved by Hamill two years before, and were in the right mindset to fall for this movie.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: So the timing was good. Whereas ice skating perhaps isn't exactly the hot sport for little girls right now. I skate, and my son plays hockey, and we see a ton of girls playing hockey, too.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Those semi-bowl-cuts with the little flip on the side were everything. I loved the girl who showed her around the skaters' compound, giving her advice. Although I had forgotten that she asks Lexie: "You're not queer, are you?" Oh, “Ice Castles.” No.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Yeah, that comment made me flinch.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: And how about creepy reporter dude who suddenly makes the moves on her?

CHRISTY LEMIRE: Yes! You read my mind. I went back and re-watched “Ice Castles” for the first time in a long time when they showed it recently at the New Beverly, Quentin Tarantino's theater, here in LA. And the one thing that struck me as an adult was the relationship with the much older reporter.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Jennifer Warren dresses her up as a little mini Jennifer Warren, and she looks like a child bride at that fancy party.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: It is one of the rare times in a film when a male journalist goes after a subject in a movie besides John Travolta in “Perfect.” So there is that.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: She's like 16, 17. He has to be twice her age—and he's reporting on her! Everything about it is wrong. And I don't think anyone in the movie views the relationship as wrong. It's predatory!

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Also, it seemed he had also been having a romance with Jennifer Warren, or I may have misread that. In any case, very weird—but it's interesting because the film doesn't judge that relationship at all.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: Right—there was some kind of flirtation. Well she (Jennifer Warren) is a grown woman, at least!

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Exactly, Christy! The film doesn't treat it as this weird statutory-rape situation. It's really jarring. I'm glad she finally got back with her age-appropriate boyfriend in his white briefs.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Jennifer Warren is more about latching onto to the next big thing. Also, I think that reporter guy has a male version of a Hamill cut.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: I had forgotten some of it. I had forgotten how tough Benson is on her in the second half. He is really the one who forces her to start skating again. Who believes in her. That was devastatingly effective on my middle-school self.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: That's something else that struck me watching it again—and it seems especially relevant now, given how this presidential election went down—the emphasis on small-town values as being superior. When she goes off to the big city and gets the fancy coach and the expensive clothes, it all falls apart for her. Only when she returns to Waverly, Iowa, and her roots does she become the person she's meant to be—a better person.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Well, yes, Christy. But why does she get punished for wanting something more and reaching out for her dream before she is too old?

SHEILA O’MALLEY: The second you see Jennifer Warren stalking through an opulent hotel lobby in a fur coat you knew she wasn't really on the level. Or that she saw dollar signs and that was about it.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: Right! She's from the big city. Ergo, she must be evil.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: But I did enjoy her fancy up-do.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: Lexie has to find out who she is away from all those trappings, the movie seems to be saying. She even goes back to that sweet, little blue dress with the white collar.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Tom Skerritt was good as the father who can't let go, who misses his wife and has put his daughter in a semi-surrogate-wife role. He doesn't even know he's doing it. It wasn't the main thrust of the movie, but it was definitely something she had to go up against. Also, the boyfriend in briefs who quit medical school and can't really get his act together.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: All these people are stuck, right? And she dares to aim for something bigger, shinier and far away. And as Susan points out, she gets punished for it.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: When the going gets tough, though, it's those who knew her when who really fight for her. Jennifer Warren drops her like a hot potato. As does the creepy reporter boyfriend. All of this is extremely manipulative, of course, but it works.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Lexie has a really good line later in the film when she says to her boyfriend, "I love you. I know you don't like me very much right now, but I love you." That's kind of an adult thing to say. That's the real journey of the film.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: Do you ladies think “Ice Castles” still holds up today, over 40 years later?

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Honestly, Christy, I can't see it outside of my own nostalgia for it. And there's nothing like the nostalgia of something that hit you hard when you were a 13-year-old girl.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Can we talk about how she gets punished? You have said, Sheila, that this whole patio furniture lurking on the ice rink when Lexie decides to skip out of the cocktail party celebrating her success and she just oops into the metal and loses most of her sight is rather ridiculous. That is a flaw that never crossed my mind the first time I saw it.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: It's a very tiny ice surface, it's true.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Well, apparently, there was a blood clot or something. Or swelling. Or ... something. But yeah, it makes no sense.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: But! She's skating for herself in that moment. She's free. There's no pressure. And then BAM! Hidden patio furniture.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Or something, something. Also, someone noted in something I read that there would have been compulsory figures she would have to do before doing her routine on the ice post-injury. She probably could not do that without her full eyesight.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: The WAY she skates around that rink, faster and faster, in her child-bride up-do ... it's all quite bizarre now, watching it as an adult. I didn't blame her wanting to leave that party where everyone was treating her like a little doll. She's only 16 years old! But it's all very ominous, the way that scene is shot. Look out, Lexie! Don't skate for yourself! That way Doom lies!

CHRISTY LEMIRE: If she can't see the roses, how is she going to see a figure 8?

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Yup, that is exactly right.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: "We forgot about the flowers." I mean, come on, though. Iconic.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: Right—she gets punished! But then she gets to enjoy redemption in Smalltown, USA. That is a GREAT final line.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Well, I'd rather hang out at that bowling alley/ice rink than at that snooty party!

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: That is right up there "Nobody's perfect!" I recall weeping in the theater when cute Robby says that.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: I just did a little Googling and I'm realizing there are many ice rink/bowling alley combos in the world—including one right here in Burbank, where I just skated yesterday. But they're not, like, in the same room, perhaps.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: It would be a little cold. Plus, I don't think the bowling alley—which is called Ice Castles, I noticed—had pinsetters even. The establishment is like Lexie's rumpled blue costume she inherited from her dead mom.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: One other scene that really stayed with me, made a real impression, is the scene of the French skater falling repeatedly after coming back to the ice post-nervous breakdown. There was something very insightful about that: the pressure on young athletes, the fear that you might someday lose your gift, that you'll be dropped like a hot potato. It's a very well put-together sequence.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Yes, yes. Being a competitive figure skater can make you CRAZY as well as BLIND!

CHRISTY LEMIRE: So if it holds up, it's because we're viewing it through the prism of nostalgia? I wonder how little girls today would view it.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Susan—ha! I am pretty sure my niece would absolutely love it. I think if you removed the weird May-December statutory rape, it would hold up beautifully today as a teen-romance melodrama. There's something timeless about sports movies. It's one of my favorite genres. The clichés are used so often because when they're used well they work beautifully.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: I first realized there was a cult for this movie when Robby Benson left a phone message on my work phone at USA TODAY. Word got around and soon there was a line of women wanting to hear his voice. They actually did a remake of “Ice Castles” that went nowhere. I think the same director, too.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: I think so, too. It's about a strong, beautiful woman going after her dreams. I never saw the remake.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Susan—what did he say in his message?? I'm still part of the cult, apparently.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Nothing about forgetting flowers. He wanted to set up a time to talk, is all. I also interviewed his son not too long ago, Zephyr, who directed his first movie with dad as a producer. I think he didn't appreciate his father in “Ice Castles” as much as I did.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: My time being gaga over him was brief. I moved on to Ralph Macchio soon after. But he is such a vulnerable person onscreen. No wonder he hit it huge with tweens.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: “One on One,” his basketball pic with Annette O'Toole, is pretty great.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: One of the main things that really dates “Ice Castles” is the following exchange: "She can't do a triple." "Who can?"

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: I love that “Ice Castles” was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Obviously, they didn't appreciate the TV letch, either.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: The jumps are much harder now. Triple-triple combinations are standard.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Does Lexie do one?

CHRISTY LEMIRE: She doesn't land it well.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: She does, at a practice, and then gets into big trouble with Jennifer Warren.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: Right! She's showing off. The big city has warped her sense of propriety.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: What do you think happened after she skated half-blind?

CHRISTY LEMIRE: She looked inward ... and found herself! Through the eyes of love, of course.

SHEILA O’MALLEY: I think she'll go back home, go to college, maybe become a coach. And she'll go out at dawn to the frozen lake and skate by herself. As her now-husband makes breakfast in the house wearing white briefs.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: I think she and Robby married and had kids who were born with blades on their feet. And they inherited the Ice Castles bowling alley after Beulah died.

CHRISTY LEMIRE: I smell a screenplay!

SHEILA O’MALLEY: Now that's a happy ending.

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