I cried last night at the dark comedy, I, Tonya. I laughed a bit too, but it is one of the saddest movies I’ve seen in a long time. My younger son, on the other hand, found it really funny, but with dark parts too. Both of us agreed that this is a really good movie. (Full disclosure: I usually find dark comedies sad. I hated The War of the Roses because the main characters were so horrible to each other.)
My son is too young to remember the “whack heard around the world”, but most of us recall this notorious incident in figure skating history. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were training to compete for a spot on the 1994 US Olympic team. A thug hired by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (with whom she was living at the time) whacked the leg of Kerrigan with a baton, with the intention of taking her out of competition. The thug missed her knee, though, and Kerrigan went on to win the silver medal at the Olympics, while Harding only placed 8th. The story is so bizarre and yet it is true… but what exactly the truth is depends on who is telling the story. And therein lies the basis for the movie.
I, Tonya was written by Steven Rogers, based in part on long interviews with Harding and Gillooly themselves. Rogers bought the rights to Harding’s life story, and so was free to apply the dark comedy treatment which highlights the absurdities of the story, the incompetence of the criminals, and the discrepancies between the various versions of the “truth”. In addition to the inherent humour, the delivery of the asides to the camera and the interviews where the characters tell their versions of events are really funny. The background story of Tonya Harding’s life is not.
Harding’s truth is that of poverty and of emotional and physical abuse by her mother, LaVona. While her mother certainly worked hard to enable Harding to skate, witnesses also saw her beat her daughter with a hair brush at a rink. Police reports also support Harding’s tale of abuse at the hands of Gillooly. And as a rock-music-loving rebel and self-described “trailer trash”, Harding was not the image that the figure skating powers-that-be wanted to support. Her necessarily hand-sown costumes did not allow her to score the style points she needed in competition. But her athleticism could not be denied. The height of her jumps lead her to be only the second woman in the world (and the first in the US) to land a triple-axel in competition.
The movie, I, Tonya, certainly does not portray Harding as a hero, but it does show how her life lead almost inevitably to tragedy. It leaves the viewer agreeing that she likely did not know about the attack (or at least its planned severity), but that she was complicit in trying to cover it up. The latter is what she plead guilty to, receiving a sentence of three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, $100,000 in fines, and having to give up her US Figure Skating Association membership (which would mean a lifetime ban on competition and on earning money from coaching).
Margot Robbie, who co-produced the movie, transforms herself into Tonya Harding, with the complicated blend of girl wanting to be loved and hard-nosed woman. Robbie was born too late to have heard about the Harding scandal and, according to Cineplex Magazine, thought she was reading a crazy fictional story when she first read the script. While she had skated and played hockey before the movie, she learned to figure skate really well (but not do the triple axel!) by training 20 hours per week for 5 months, as described in The Hollywood Reporter.
A minor complaint is that, in my opinion, Robbie at 27 looks a bit too old to be playing a 15-year-old or even a 23-year-old. And one thing I noticed about the skating costumes is that the movie cuts them in the modern way (with a good portion of buttocks showing), which was not the way they were worn (more modestly) in the ’90’s. However, the soundtrack is very authentic to the time period and fits the scenes well.
All of the main actors turn in performances that come so near to available footage of interviews with the real-life characters. But by far the best performance is that of Allison Janney, who has just won a Golden Globe. She is so believable as the mother who, while probably doing what she thought was best, was explosive and disturbing in her constant abuse of her talented daughter. These scenes of violence, along with those delivered by Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly, are really startlingly realistic but necessary to the unfolding story. (I did hear some strange laughter in the audience in what I felt were inappropriate places, but I wonder if some of that comes from the shock of it.) In the end, what made me cry was just the absolute tragedy of a life derailed by a truly stupid and violent event. (Note that I don’t think this excuses anything and I don’t know what Harding’s involvement truly was. Other lives were severely impacted of course, especially Nancy Kerrigan’s.)
It’s interesting how little of Kerrigan is in the movie, but as she herself recently said, “I was the victim. Like, that’s my role in this whole thing. That’s it.” I, Tonya is Harding’s story (even with Gillooly’s side also being shown) and she herself is really happy with the movie. It’s nice to read that she has a good life now (again not excusing anything) with her husband and seven-year-old son.
I read another interesting piece that talked about some of the other elements that could have been included to make the movie more well-rounded. For example, the first woman in the world to land the triple axel in competition was Midori Ito of Japan, and “she, too, was hardly a media darling in the West, and was written and spoken about in racist and masculine terms.” The article also talks about some possible motivations if Harding was actually involved in the attack on Kerrigan, such as the competition for endorsement money and the relatively poorer performances that Harding gave as compared to Kerrigan in the lead-up to the big events.
I, Tonya is a movie that I can highly recommend, providing that you are able to handle the disturbing realism of the violent scenes. Oscar nominations are likely coming.
For another perspective on I, Tonya, check out Servetus’ day at the movies over on Me+Richard.
(Photos from IMDb, except Kerrigan photo from ESPN Sports.)