Occasionally, in a spirit of enormous constructiveness, I pay tribute to certain things from the days of yore that I have a craving to see return to centre stage. While I wouldn’t say that my doing so has exactly set the world on fire thus far, that hasn’t stopped me from producing Part III of, what I will grandly call, this series.
To start with, I don’t believe that it is ever the case these days that actors adopt as their own the name of a character that they’re either about to play or have played. The foremost example of this phenomenon, at least to my knowledge, is that of the actress May Wynn, who played a fictional sassy nightclub singer also called May Wynn in the, to my mind, strangely listless, if highly decorated, 1954 film adaptation of that excellent book Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. Ms Wynn was known as Donna Lee Hickey until the studio, Columbia, which was behind the film made her adopt the imaginary chanteuse’s name for all time.
I have to admit that, unfortunately for May Wynn, her career didn’t exactly go into the stratosphere after she went along with this edict. Exhibit A is the movie Taming Sutton’s Gal, about a city boy who goes to stay in a hunting lodge in the middle of nowhere. In the words of the IMDb summary, ‘He soon finds himself in a lick of hillbilly trouble when he catches the eye of a moonshiner’s meretricious wife. Low budget “white lightnin’” dramedy released to scant notice in 1957.’ Interestingly, in The White Squaw (1956) and in Hong Kong Affair (1958), May Wynn played characters by the names of Ectay-O-Wahnee and Chu Lan, respectively but, despite the exotic nature of each of these soubriquets, apparently wasn’t moved to alter her name yet again and see if her luck changed.
There is also the prime case of Mr Gig Young, who carved out a twentieth-century career by frequently playing a genial drunk, in, for example, Teacher’s Pet (1958), which stars Clark Gable as an old-time newspaper editor who despises university journalism courses. (Young portrays a psychologist, Dr Hugo Pine, who, despite any inebriation, has ‘more degrees than a thermometer’.) Young was actually christened Byron Ellsworth Barr but after he appeared in The Gay Sisters (1942) (concerning the daughters of the wealthy Gaylord family, who, both their parents having died, must manage their Fifth Avenue mansion unaided) as a character named Gig Young, the studio (in this instance, Warner Bros) decided that this should be his name, even though his stage name at the time was Byron Barr. Strangely appealing as all this is, actors adopting character names to be their stage names did not exactly become a trend that lastingly swept Planet Earth, but how I wish it had. Imagine if Ted Neeley had gone with ‘Jesus Christ’, or if Richard Roxburgh were now to turn around and throw in his lot forever more with ‘Cleaver Greene’.
Something else that appears virtually to have gone the way of the dodo is films with storylines that centre around the glamorous activity of figure skating. Norwegian skater Sonja Henie, of course, struck gold with such Hollywood movies as Thin Ice in the nineteen thirties and forties, although she did become less popular when a photograph of her shaking hands with Hitler at the 1936 winter Olympics did the rounds. As far as I can tell, although I am happy to be corrected, films about figure skating then disappeared until they had something of a return to popularity in the nineteen seventies and, to my mind, figure-skating flicks were the perfect way for the United States to unwind after its lack of success in the Vietnam War.
I particularly have a soft spot for movies about figure-skating couples, as they invariably concern a male ice hockey player who doesn’t want to get involved in anything as pantywaist as figure skating but, due to, say, injury, is forced to team up with a female figure skater who has a snobs-in-Caddyshack level of snootiness. Invariably, she finds him to be an insufferable boor, until they become one both on the ice and off. In, for example, Champions: A Love Story (1979), ice hockey player Peter Scoggin III (Jimmy McNichol), after initial mutual loathing, joins himself professionally with hoity-toity figure skater Carrie Harlich (Joy LeDuc) (with Shirley Knight Mama Rose-ing it up as Carrie’s mother), gets out of windcheaters and into big satin shirts, and ultimately gets killed in a plane crash. One website notes the ‘cons’ of Champions as ‘The skating in this movie is not that good’ and ‘The acting in this movie is not that good’, but I beg to differ on both counts.
The touchstone for figure-skating movies, though, would have to be Ice Castles (1978). This drama swept my fifth-grade class and I recall being glued even to the serialised novelisation in Woman’s Day. Castles is the story of figure skater Alexis Winston (Lynn-Holly Johnson, who also cropped up as a much sluttier figure skater in For Your Eyes Only), which unfolds to relentless Marvin Hamlisch music. Alexis’s boyfriend, Nick Peterson (Robby Benson), is, unsurprisingly, an ice hockey player.
Small-town girl Alexis is talent spotted while figure skating in ‘the regionals’ by major-time coach Deborah Mackland (Jennifer Warren), whose big leagueness is clear from the fact that she wears an enormous caramel-coloured fur coat. (Incidentally, Warren also appears in Champions, as Mrs Scoggin. How strange must her life have been in the late seventies.) There is much opposition to this plan from Alexis’s widowed, Kris Kristofferson-like, old man (‘Give her a chance to be something!’ ‘She is something!’). Alexis gets to pursue her dreams, however, and, she and Nick having grown apart, and even though she’s only sixteen, gets involved with a sports reporter who appears to be in his mid thirties, which no one seems to find in any way worthy of comment. After lurking around behind an ice sculpture and feeling lonely at a high-powered skating-world party, Alexis hits the rink for a vengeful skate and, for some unknown reason, collides with what seems to be a bunch of tables from a food court. This sends her legally blind but, with Nick’s help, she, unfeasibly, if admirably, returns to figure skating. Yes, I appreciate that Ice Castles was remade in 2010 (and, upsettingly enough, by the same director, Donald Wrye), but I believe the film went straight to DVD.
The Cutting Edge (1992) (its tagline ‘The King of the Rink is about to meet America’s Ice Queen’) emulated the plot of Champions: A Love Story precisely but was sans plane crash. Ice hockey player Doug Dorsey (DB Sweeney) is a man so butch that, with his time in the rink coming to a close, he’s even turned to construction work. However, for one last shot at the ice-skating brass ring, he must team up with Kate Moseley (while spelled differently, I sincerely hope that her surname is a tribute to the founder of the British Union of Fascists) (Moira Kelly), who, as the voiceover on the trailer puts it, ‘… has a nickname that rhymes with “rich”’. The usual shenanigans and ultimate triumphs for the duo ensue, which I need hardly go into here. I actually first saw The Cutting Edge while I was on a plane and enjoyed it no end, although it did bring to mind Champions, which, naturally, brought to mind aviation disasters. But hell, man, that was eighteen years ago, and it’s been a long time between figure-skating-movie drinks.
Of course, what would make me happiest of all would be if an actor in a figure-skating movie had ever changed their name to that of their character, such as Jimmy McNichol transforming himself into Peter Scoggin III. That’s most certainly not a name that should be going begging. But then, neither is Byron Barr.