'Thin Ice': Tai Babilonia story lacks sophisticated moves


November 05, 1990|By Michael Hill

SEE TAI SKATE. See Randy skate. See Tai and Randy skate. See Tai and Randy win. See Randy fall. See Tai cry. See Tai drink. See Tai take pills. See Tai try to kill herself. See Tai skate.

Look, the story of Tai Babilonia is an interesting and moving one, a cautionary tale for the many in our society who equate athletic prowess and fame with maturity.

But the story-telling technique used in "On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story" is right out of a first-grade primer, running a dramatic Zamboni machine over this biography until it has the glossy sheen and thickness of the ice mentioned in the title.

There are a few moving scenes in the film, which will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 o'clock tonight, most of them as the title character comes to grips with her flaws. But, for the most part, this NBC film glides over the surface of this life as quickly as Tai slid across her chosen medium of expression.

For those with short memories, Tai and Randy Gardner were the first Americans in a couple of generations to win a world championship in pairs skating, breaking the Soviet dominance of that division.

They ruled in the late 1970s -- when the cold war was hot -- and their showdown with the Russians was to be one of the highlights of the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid. But, days before the competition, Gardner pulled a muscle. He didn't tell Tai, but went out to warm up for the first program, his leg filled with a pain killer, and couldn't go on. They withdrew.

As "On Thin Ice" tells the story, though she and Randy subsequently signed with an ice show and got the huge financial payoff from their lifetime of dedication to skating, the failure at the Olympics made Tai realize that there was an emptiness at the center of her life.

She was skating, but she didn't know if she wanted to. So first she ate herself into weight problems, turning to amphetamines to try to handle that. Then she drank herself into oblivion, all the while feeling that everyone in her life was yelling at her, "Skate! Skate! Skate!" as if she were some puppet made to entertain and earn money.

That this much comes through is a tribute to the strength of Tai's basic tale. But "On Thin Ice" reduces it to brief snippets, even resorting to the cheapest of techniques, showing people watching television and listening to sports reporters to convey the highlights of the pair's competitive career.

Never does the relentless pace of the narrative slow down to allow any aspect of the story to resonate. It would have been so much better to have focused on part of Tai's life, and then used the other biographical data to provide depth and richness, instead of using this speed/search approach.

Though there is little time to really determine their abilities, Rachel Crawford has an occasional good scene as Tai, while Charlie Stafford comes across as the blank slate that Gardner apparently was. William Daniels is their demanding but understanding coach, John Nicks.

Babilonia and Gardner, who are skating together once again, re-created many of their routines for the movie, though they had to be photographed from afar to conceal their identities.

Despite its apparent good intentions, there's still something unsettling about "On Thin Ice." Throughout the second half of the film, Tai is pushed and pushed to keep skating to make money. Eventually, she quit, proclaiming her independence.

Now, she's back skating, and exploiting her own tragedies to further her once stumbling career. Maybe she really does want to skate again. Maybe she is telling her story for the best of reasons.

Or maybe it's a case of see Tai bare her soul. See Tai get on prime time. See Tai make a lot of money again.

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