She ranked as among the most internationally famous Norwegians, but wasn’t very popular at home. A new film about ice skating star Sonja Henie hasn’t been very popular with the public either, but it was chosen to make its international premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this weekend.
Its selection for a showing at Sundance is another accomplishment for its Norwegian director Anna Sewitsky. The film centers on how Henie, after winning triple Olympic gold, headed for Hollywood in the late 1930s to become a film star, and the ups and downs that followed.
Film critics in Norway have called the film “a complete character assassination” of the blonde skater and film star who had a public image as a wholesome ice princess. Henie’s lifestyle was anything but, according to the film, filled with heavy drinking, sex scandals and driving over the border to Mexico, apparently to stash money away from tax authorities.
Sonja Henie grew up in Oslo with a demanding father who pushed her into becoming the top ice skater of her time. She made her Olympic debut at Chamonix in 1924, when she was just 11 years old. She went on to win three Olympic gold medals, 10 World Championships and six European Championships. The film, however, isn’t so much about the athlete and artist Sonja Henie, as about the film star and diva.
Henie is portrayed as a sharp businesswoman, full of self-confidence and able to get what she wanted out of Hollywood’s biggest film tycoons at the time. Sewitsky’s version of Sonja Henie is a stubborn, greedy, egoistical and, at times, downright nasty woman who loved mounting huge parties but could also end up getting hurt. She eventually returned to Norway, where she hadn’t been forgiven for making a Nazi salute to Hitler or failing to offer more support for Norway during its World War II occupation. Sewitsky’s film has a memorable scene where, when confronted with concerns about her films’ distribution in Europe, Henie claims “I can call Gøebbels in the morning.” She’d had dinner with him at one of Hitler’s homes.
She redeemed herself somewhat by later bringing her ice show to Oslo, marrying wealthy businessman Niels Onstad and, together, building up an art collection that formed the basis for their Henic Onstad Museum just west of Oslo, which opened in 1968 with Norway’s royal family in attendance.
The new film, which opened in Norway during the Christmas holidays, is said to be part of a wave of films portraying “unsympathetic” women. That description of Henie is an understatement, who’s presented mostly as a tyrant. Norwegian actress Ine Marie Willmann has the starring role and received good reviews in Norway for her portrayal of a bold and self-possessed superstar.
Box office returns, however, have been disappointing in Norway. It drew only around 20,000 ticket buyers during its premiere weekend, and 60,000 by the second week in January. “It’s sad and surprising that the Sonja Henie film has had such a poor reception among the public,” said Espen Horn, who’s producing another major Norwegian film due out in February about Norwegian polar hero Roald Amundsen. Horn told newspaper Dagsavisen that it was a disappointment “for all of Film Norway” that the “Sonja” film didn’t drum up more enthusiasm. He was hoping it would, and give his own biographical “Amundsen” film a base to lean on.
Sonja Henie herself is getting some new recognition in Oslo, though. City officials announced last month that a new ice skating arena being built at Frogner, where Henie grew up, skated and practiced, will be named the “Sonja Henie Ice Hall.” There’s no tradition in Norway for naming public buildings after people.
“But this is to honour our international star in figure skating,” Rina Mariann Hansen, the city government politician in charge of culture and sports, told Dagsavisen. There’s a surprising lack of ice arenas in Norway, given the country’sw reputatino for expertise in winter sports, and the country hasn’t had another top figure skater since Henie.
“Figure skating will be among the skating sports that will get a lot of time in the new hall,” Hansen promised. “Sonja Henie was a much bigger star than we have realized in Norway. The film also shows how big she was.”