“The Ice King”
Gay Olympic Skater John Curry
Director James Erskine explores the life and career of John Curry in “The Ice King, a new documentary. Curry earned his status as an international sports celebrity through the early 1970s as a revolutionary character in figure skating, transforming the sport from a simple display of physical prowess into an art form. He won Olympic, World, European and British Championship medals, permanently changing the worldwide public’s perception of the sport. Yet Erskine’s primary inspiration comes from author Bill Jones’ 2014 book, “Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry”.
“The Ice King” is a long overdue evaluation of his Curry’s artistry. The documentary examines how his ambition to be a ballet dancer was thwarted by his overbearing father and he turned to ice dancing which was acceptable to his father because it was classed as a sport.
Curry’s oppressive childhood was unleashed and given free rein when he was allowed to dance albeit on ice and away from his father’s influence. It enabled Curry to also covertly embrace his suppressed homosexuality. Director James Erskine has uncovered some remarkable and rare footage of the British skaters artistry that was rewarded when he won gold at the 1976 winter Olympics. He was already the European champion and had won the World Championship too and was deservedly called The Ice King. But this was the 70’s and a far less enlightened time and all that the journalists were really interested in at the press conference was whether he was going to come out and admit his homosexuality.
His sexuality was an issue that would dog him throughout his life and what comes out of this documentary is just what an utterly tortured soul he was. His genius included mood swings, loneliness and depression and eventually injury that forced him to retire from competitive ice dancing and performing shows on ice instead. The footage of these shows performed by his own company of skaters are utterly captivating. This footage is nearly all-home movie super 8 shot by members of the audience and it seems incredible that that these shows were never professionally filmed.
What the documentary emphasizes is Curry’s dedication to perfectionism at any cost and in his case it was a huge financial cost that meant he had no choice but to perform as he was the draw for an audience. Yet regardless of the cost he generously insisted on paying everyone equally. It was a move that inevitably led his company to massive debt and bankruptcy forcing him to continue to perform even though by then his years of skating meant he was constantly in pain.
John Curry might not be a name immediately recognizable to younger sporting fans, but after a successful competitive career on the ice – topped off with a gold medal during the 1976 Winter Olympics – he blazed a trail in the world of ice dancing. His innovations are still unparalleled and the cross-pollination of modern dance and ballet are now the norm in figure skating.
A gay man relatively open about his sexuality in an era before that was accepted, Curry had traveled the globe and packed in a lifetime’s worth of exploits when he met his untimely, AIDS-related end at the age of 44.
The real strength of “The Ice King” comes from the wealth of videos, photos and private letters shown throughout. The editing is superb, and the effort it must have taken to curate these images must have been huge, with some of the videos being the only known recordings of Curry’s routines. This archive of footage, pictures and private writings gives the audience a very intimate look into the life of a very public figure.
Erskine believes and hopes that John Curry’s professional success might serve in a demonstrative capacity for sportspeople moving ahead, even now, 24 years after his death from an AIDS-related heart attack.