Power Ranking

How Does I, Tonya Rank against Other Figure Skating Films?

With the Tonya Harding biopic now in theaters, we take a hard look at nearly a century's worth of skating movies.

By Margaret Seiler December 20, 2017

Tonya harding courtesy neon vpfquy

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya

Image: Courtesy Neon

I, Tonya, chronicling the unlikely rise and bizarre fall of figure skating champion (and Portland native) Tonya Harding, is ready to join the pantheon of figure skating sagas. How does it rank? (And don't miss our profile of Harding—during the day we spent with the champ, she landed some doubles, talked motherhood, and jump-started a Hyundai.)


The Cutting Edge (1992)

Will warm-blooded regular guy D. B. Sweeney thaw the icy heart of rich bitch Moira Kelly, whom the hockey star is recruited to accompany in pairs skating after an injury sidelines him from the game? Will his blue-collar midwestern friends and relatives call him a sissy? Will her skull shatter if they mess up the Pamchenko Twist? Will love conquer all? Will she loan me her luxe cashmere wardrobe? Most of the skating in The Cutting Edge is just shots of isolated clasping hands and gnashing blades, in weirdly darkened competition rinks. The Russian rivals are played by a pair of actual Canadian Olympians, but most of the skating scenes with the principals feel awkwardly stitched together. Sweeney, Kelly, and that darn toe pick have a Zamboni’s worth of charm to smooth out the flaws, though. Bonus: Guy woos gal with the help of a well-placed 50-cent word: “matriculate.” A good reminder to keep reading those books, kids!


I, Tonya (2017)

Margot Robbie plays the Portland-born Tonya Harding as a teenage up-and-comer, 20-something national champ, 30-something boxer, and 40-something mom sitting in her kitchen (the transformations and ’80s looks are incredible) telling her own story, a version at odds with what became the dominant narrative. Interviews with Harding’s mom, coach, and ex-husband are also re-created with actors, detailing the lead-up to “the fucking incident”—the clubbing of Nancy Kerrigan’s knee right before nationals in January 1994—and the subsequent media circus. A rollicking good time with a rollicking good soundtrack, I, Tonya mixes memories and the public imagination, with actors sometimes turning to the camera to note whether something actually happened. Played as a dark comedy, the film presents scenes of a hardscrabble upbringing, dubious childrearing practices, and domestic abuse without descending into squalor porn. It will lose some locals, though, with its filming location: not Portland, not even the West Coast, but the tax-break-happy state of Georgia.  


Ice Castles (1978)

Just a small-town girl. Living in a lonely world. Caught the eye of a fancy coach (Jennifer Warren, who’s also in Champions and hockey classic Slap Shot and should really get an honorary Oscar for acting while cold) and gets swooped off to an elite Colorado training facility. She has a hot new beau and seems medal-bound, but as her frustrations mount she has to skate them out. That’s when tragedy strikes. Good thing her small-town boyfriend and depressed dad (the ageless Tom Skerritt) are there for her. Have Kleenex at hand for when those flowers start flying. Bonus: Colleen Dewhurst as a smoking, swearing, drinking, bowling-alley-owning, no-BS mother figure.

Pewter and Beyond

Blades of Glory (2007)

Blades of Glory is to skating what Zoolander is to modeling, with the mythic Iron Lotus move holding the impossible allure of model pose Blue Steel. Zoolander has way more heart, though. Homophobia and grody sexual harassment get played for laughs in Blades, which finds Will Ferrell and Jon Heder responding to a Harding-style ban from men’s skating by joining forces for a loophole that lets them compete together in pairs. The actual funny parts come from the fake Olympics mascot and marketing strategies at the “Winter World Sports Games,” Craig T. Nelson’s hair, and Ferrell’s character’s trenchant analysis of the Black Eyed Peas song “My Humps.” The actual blade work is cartoonishly fake, but the flowing costumes and hair are top-notch. Bonus: The parade-of-cultural-stereotypes parody as the other countries’ skaters are introduced is a United Nations of hilarity.

Champions: A Love Story (1979)

Inspired by a tragic true story, this TV movie about a singles skater who tries pairs when a cute boy she knows is suspended from the hockey team (his dad has to get over all the sissy stuff), offers a glimpse of reality: the money it takes, the stadium-stair workouts, the high-pressure negging mom, the injuries, the toll on social life and family, the coach living in a not-so-glam trailer. The skating’s not too dazzling, but mostly real. Jimmy McNichol (Kristy McNichol’s big brother) even does it in jeans. Bonus: A character’s miscarriages, fibroids, and hysterectomy add up to one of the few movie mentions ever of these very common women’s experiences.

Ice Princess (2005)

In pursuit of a Harvard science scholarship, Michelle Trachtenberg theorizes physics can make a better skater, and she decides to experiment on herself. Her mom, Joan Cusack, wants her to stop skating and just study. A rival’s mom, played by Kim Cattrall, doesn’t like the new competition, but her daughter (Hayden Panetierre) is dealing with pressures of her own. A definite post-Tonya-and-Nancy storyline, heavy on the sabotage and the momma drama—but it’s a Disney film, so everything comes out totes OK in the end.

The Sonja Henie Oeuvre (1930s–40s)

The original international skating sensation, the Norwegian world champ followed up her Olympic success with a (non-singing) career in Hollywood musicals, unleashing a woman’s strength and skill on the ice but usually dressed as a little girl: Shirley Temple curls with a Norwegian accent and crazy eyelashes. (Hollywood humanitarian Jean Hersholt, who played Henie’s father in two films, was also Shirley Temple’s grandfather when she starred in Heidi.) Many corny plots find a simple country girl crossing paths with a famous man, with comic misunderstandings putting true love in jeopardy. The ice can get cluttered when a corps de skating comes out and directors try (and fail) to go all Busby Berkeley, but Henie’s blade work is the real deal. Still, there’s way too much toe pick. Bonus: Youngsters who know Don Ameche only from old-man roles in Trading Places and Cocoon get to see his legit heartthrob charm quietly work on Henie in 1938’s Happy Landing.

Honorable Mention

It doesn’t have to be all about figure skating to have a memorable scene on the ice. Perfect 6.0s for the following: Cary Grant as an angel on skates in The Bishop’s Wife; John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale and that darn pair of gloves in Serendipity, complete with steady snowfall and Nick Drake; stargazing on the ice in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; that 1992 episode of Beverly Hills 90210 when the audience is reminded that the Walshes moved from Minnesota (and that actor Jason Priestley is Canadian), so of course Brandon plays hockey, and of course there’s a beautiful but troubled figure skater at the rink, and of course he falls for her, and of course he does the right thing and lets her go to pursue her dreams; Sylvester Stallone in shoes trying to keep up with Talia Shire on skates in Rocky; the terrifying dream sequence in Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates.

And the Best Ice Hockey Movie You’ve Probably Never Seen

I’d thought this made-for-TV Canadian favorite existed only on old home-recorded VHS tapes, but 1984’s Hockey Night has enjoyed some nostalgia screenings in recent years in Toronto and Vancouver and is now available on iTunes. Made around the same time as Helen Hunt’s McMinnville-filmed Quarterback Princess, it stars a pre-Anne of Green Gables Megan Follows as a kickass goalie who moves from Toronto to sleepy little Parry Sound, Ontario, where the lack of a girls’ team sends her to the boys’ tryouts. Some local bigwigs don’t like the idea of a girl goalie, but the team’s dreamy star player and endearing coach (Rick Moranis) respect her fast glove hand, and know she’s the best. 

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