By: BabyRuth (Two Beers) –
We Americans sure loved our scandals in the 1990s. It seemed every couple of months there was a new stranger-than-fiction story that captured our attention, each one more insane than the last. Because this was before social media, we had to get all our information from tabloid news coverage and in many cases, a made-for-TV movie.
Who could forget Lorena Bobbit? Or the “Long Island Lolita”, Amy Fisher? (In Fisher’s case, there were three TV movies –yeah, it was a strange time and these days, that’s saying something.)
The biggest of them all, well, until OJ anyway, played out in the previously scandal-free world of women’s figure skating.
Anyone old enough to recall the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal of 1994 most likely remembers it the same way: America’s ice princess sweetheart (Kerrigan) was attacked by lowlife cohorts of her trailer trash competitor (Harding). Cut and dry. Nancy: good. Tonya: bad.
Just how involved was Harding? Well, despite her claims of not having any knowledge prior to the attack, involved enough that she was banned from the U.S. Figure Skating Association. But not until after she would compete face-to-face with her rival on the biggest stage possible, the 1994 Winter Olympics, because ratings.
Of course there was a made-for-TV movie (available for your viewing pleasure right here) which I strongly advise checking out after seeing I, Tonya, as the similarities are pretty striking: the framing device of mock interviews, the staging of several scenes, and the slightly satirical and meta tone. Plus, it has probably the most inspired casting ever of Heather Langenkamp as Kerrigan.
But we aren’t here to talk about that movie, we’re here to discuss the one that came 23 years later that has already received several awards and is nominated for three Oscars.
I, Tonya tells the story of Harding’s (Margot Robbie) troubled life, starting with her toxic relationship with her abusive mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), then her rocky (to say the least) on-again, off-again relationship with husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), leading up to the hare-brained attack plot and the media circus that followed.
Though the film has darkly comedic moments and overall light tone, it’s ultimately a very tragic story of someone with so much ambition and raw talent and who overcame so much, yet managed to keep making the absolute worst decisions, even after receiving multiple second chances. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and writer Steven Rogers (Stepmom, Hope Floats) illustrate this in a biting, often hilarious, often horrifying , but always entertaining 120 minutes that most certainly does not feel like a made-for-TV movie.
While the film definitely favors Harding’s side of the story, she is often an unreliable narrator, with her and others’ versions of events often conflicting. These versions are told through recreated interviews with involved parties, years later, recounting the events leading up to and after the attack on Kerrigan (make sure to stick around during the credits for footage of the real interviews).
The “incident,” as it’s referred to, is only a small part of Harding’s story (though it is, as the older Tonya states “what you all came for”). This is a woman who was beaten down, metaphorically and literally (the film does not hold back there) by nearly everyone in her life, always being told she wasn’t good/pretty/refined enough. But she was a fighter, an underdog, and had the drive to keep fighting. To show them. And she had the skills to back it up. And she finally did.
And then she screwed it all up.
It’s a wild story about a complicated person and though it stops short of fully redeeming Harding, it does challenge viewers’ perception of her. At times, I, Tonya feels like a companion piece to another recent film, The Disaster Artist, in that it provides a more empathetic view of a personality often relegated to a punchline.
Oh hi Tonya! (Actual photo from this year’s Golden Globe Awards)
When Margot Robbie was first announced to be playing Harding, it seemed like an odd casting decision. Since her breakout role in The Wolf of Wall Street, she seemed destined to be unfairly typecast in bombshell girlfriend/wife roles. But Robbie refused to be pigeonholed and has made interesting decisions in the projects she has taken on since. Her career trajectory brings to mind another Australian, Nicole Kidman. Like Kidman’s turn in 1995’s To Die For (which I was reminded of several times while viewing I, Tonya), her portrayal of Harding is a game-changer.
Robbie has stated that she was not aware of the Harding/Kerrigan incident prior to researching the role for the film (She was only four at the time. You’re old and you’re welcome). Even after reading the script, she didn’t know it was a true story. By not having a preconceived opinion of the real-life person, Robbie was able to approach the role with a fresh perspective and in turn, gives the audience one on Harding as well.
While Robbie flawlessly nails the accent and mannerisms of Harding (not to mention doing quite a bit of her own skating), her two most remarkable moments are non-verbal. One is when Harding executes the extremely difficult triple-axel at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, making history as the first woman to land the move in competition, perfectly duplicating Harding’s joyous response (the mock interview that follows in which she tears up and says “no one ever asks me about that anymore” is pretty great too.). The second is a scene of Harding moments before her skate at the 1994 Olympics as she attempts to hold it together while applying her makeup, which, in my opinion, secured her Oscar nomination.
Speaking of, Allison Janney is all but a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress, having already racked up numerous well-deserved awards for her chilling portrayal of LaVona Fay Golden. She is utterly terrifying.
One of the most overlooked performances, if not the most, this awards season is Sebastian Stan, whose name has barely been mentioned which is really too bad. The portrayal of Gillooly could have easily gone the caricature route, but Stan delivers a balanced and humanizing performance. Yes, humanizing. Not an easy thing to do with an abusive asshole character, and especially one with a mustache like that.
Finally, there is one more actor who deserves a mention here because he turned in a phenomenal, revelatory, and dedicated performance. I’m talking, of course, about Little Man the parakeet.
“I gotta find out what his real name is because he’s one of my favorite scene partners I’ve ever worked with. I knew it was my job to make it look like I had a relationship with the bird, that we’d been together for a long time. I couldn’t look ruffled, if you will, by anything this bird did. And believe me, he did a lot. I mean, you saw him trying to eat out my ear.” – Allison Janney (source)
I didn’t think I could love Allison Janney any more, but then she goes and uses the term “eat out my ear.”
The spot-on recreation of the costumes as well as the music also deserve a toast.
Team Kerrigan may feel she got the short end of the stick (I’m going to hell), with the character barely getting any screen time and dialogue aside from her famous “WHHYY?!” I mean… she was like, the actual victim.
But, then again, this is Tonya’s story.
I, Tonya is an entertaining mix of comedy and tragedy featuring some of the best performances of the year. And it just may change your opinion of Tonya Harding a little. Maybe.
I, Tonya (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever LaVona does
Take a Drink: whenever anyone says “triple axel”
Take a drink: every mention of “the incident”
Take a Drink: whenever you can spot the CGI during the skating scenes
Take a Drink: whenever a character breaks the fourth wall
Take a Drink: whenever something breaks during a fight
Take a Drink: whenever “Little Man” steals a scene
Take a Drink: whenever two characters’ versions of a story contradict
Do a Shot: for every Kerrigan “WHHYYYYY??” scream