The Olympics and the movies are almost exact contemporaries. The modern Olympiad debuted in 1896. The Lumière brothers made their first films in 1895. The relationship doesn’t end there.
Swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller became the most-celebrated screen Tarzan. Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” (1938), about the Berlin Games, is the most influential of all sports documentaries. Cary Grant’s last movie, “Walk, Don’t Run” (1966), is set at the Tokyo Olympics. No, he doesn’t play a competitor. Robert Towne’s directorial debut, “Personal Best” (1982), has its denouement at the 1980 US Olympic track and field trials. And so on.
What about the Winter Olympics and the movies? Them, too: The first snow-and-ice Olympiad was in 1924. Three years later, talkies arrived. Clearly, some kind of affinity obtains. Maybe it’s the resemblance between Olympic rings and sprocket-holes.
But just as the Winter Games are most definitely a distant No. 2 to their warmer-season sibling, so has Hollywood shown far less interest in them. Relations between the Winter Olympics and film have been markedly fewer. They’ve often tended, in fact, to be slightly ridiculous.
Two words may convey that ridiculousness: “Sonja” and “Henie.”
Few readers may recognize the name now, but 70 years ago it was as familiar as Beyoncé’s is today. Growing up in Norway, Henie dreamed of Hollywood stardom. She got her wish. After winning three gold medals in figure skating, she signed with 20th Century Fox and had her first starring role in “One in a Million” (1936).
Henie couldn’t act. Even if she could, her thick Norwegian accent would have disguised her thespian accomplishments. It didn’t matter. She starred in 11 movies. They had titles like “Thin Ice” (1937). Several were big hits. That’s more than Katarina Witt can say. The two-time figure skating gold medalist also took a stab at the movies – she’s 12th-billed in “Ronin” (1998) and has a cameo as herself in “Jerry Maguire” (1996) – but nothing came of it.
One Henie film is still worth watching. That’s no thanks to her, though. “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941) features the Glenn Miller Orchestra and, even better, the Nicholas Brothers. Talk about gold-medal athleticism! Their “Chattanooga Choo Choo” number, with a young Dorothy Dandridge, would make Dick Button pop his buttons. It’s on YouTube.
Unsurpassed on ice, and uninspiring on screen, Henie pursued another form of performance. She liked guys – really, really liked guys. Among guys she liked – and who liked her right back – were boxing champion Joe Louis and fellow movie stars Tyrone Power and Van Johnson. Her most notorious relationship was platonic. Henie counted among Adolf Hitler’s more famous admirers, or at least she did until that became bad box office.
The triangulation of Winter Olympics, Hollywood, and geopolitics began with Henie. It didn’t end there, as “Miracle” (2004) and “Miracle on Ice” (1981) attest. Both recount how the underdog 1980 US Olympic hockey team defeated the big, bad Soviets and went on to take the gold.
Nothing in either movie can outdo the actual drama that took place. Which is one of the biggest problems with Olympic movies. How can you top the untoppable? Robert Redford is Robert Redford, and that’s saying a lot. But in “Downhill Racer” (1969) he’s no Jean-Claude Killy. The difficulty of art imitating life is why a documentary like last year’s “The Crash Reel,” about snowboarder Kevin Pearce and his rivalry with Olympic medalist Shaun White, is almost certain to be more compelling than any re-creation or fictional story.
Filmmakers know that, of course. So they’ve gone in one of two directions: laughter or suds. Sometimes the laughter is based on fact. The comedy “Cool Runnings” (1993) purports to tell the tale of the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Games. Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards also competed in those Olympics, as a ski jumper, and even more ignominiously. A movie with Steve Coogan as Edwards is in the works.
Sometimes the laughter springs from poetic license: fact heightened into fiction. “Blades of Glory” (2007) begins with skaters Will Ferrell and Jon Heder being stripped of their gold medals – don’t ask – and then scheming to get back into Olympic competition as a same-sex pair. The rules don’t exactly disallow it, do they?
Truly, there’s something about figure skating. So graceful kinesthetically, so preposterous otherwise: the costumes, the music, the emotions. Oh, the emotions. That’s where the suds come in. One of the great mysteries is why Lifetime hasn’t started programming the Figure Skating Channel. Whether made for television or the big screen, there’s no source of suds quite like triple axels, double lutzes, and suspiciously low scores from the East German judge.
You don’t have to have seen any of the following movies, and you probably haven’t. The titles speak for themselves: “Ice Castles” (1978), “Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story” (1994), “The Cutting Edge” (1992), “Ice Princess” (2005), “Go Figure” (2005), a different “Ice Castles” (2010). Perhaps seeking to enlarge the target demographic, “Cutting Edge,” “Ice Princess,” and “Go Figure” all have hockey angles, too.
The movies have had their occasional Olympic winter sport in non-Olympic competition: skiing, briefly, in “Spellbound” (1945); curling, even more briefly, in “Help!” (1965); hockey, in “Slap Shot” (1977). The greatest winter-athletics moment in Hollywood history doesn’t involve an Olympic sport. Who knows, though, if Charles Foster Kane had ridden Rosebud a few more years maybe he’d have used his millions to get sledding entered into Olympic competition. Or does that sound too extreme?
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.