“Americans want someone to love and someone to hate!”
The above line is uttered by the Tonya Harding character in the new mockumentary I, Tonya. Tainted figure skater Tonya Harding was clearly a celebrity Americans chose to hate.
I had previously written that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was the best movie of this holiday season — and then I saw I, Tonya. I thought it was breathtaking cinema — brilliantly written, directed and acted. Like Three Billboards it is dark humor par excellence — but it differs from Billboards in being a pretty much true story. It pivots on the January, 1994, incident in which Harding’s figure skating rival Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted at Cobo Arena in Detroit during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. A bumbling assailant whacked her on the knee with a police baton and Kerrigan wailing in pain and shouting, “why, why!” was captured on video.
In spite of the assault Kerrigan made the Olympic team, as did her rival Harding. Of course, during the Olympic trials and the Olympic competition the world was focused on women’s figure skating, and the Olympic ratings skyrocketed. Remember this was the early-90s when 24/7 news and sleazy infotaiment was just ramping up — Inside Edition, Hard Copy and A Current Affair were busy morphing into the insidious TMZ.
At the Olympic competition Kerrigan earned a silver medal — and after a badly botched performance, Tonya finished fifth. In the spirit of the times it seemed like justice had prevailed. The wholesome, lovely All American girl Nancy Kerrigan bested the conniving villainess Tonya Harding.
It was subsequently revealed that Harding’s abusive low-life husband Jeff Gillooly masterminded the assault. Harding denied prior knowledge and in court was more or less exonerated of helping plan the assault. However, she was convicted of obstructing justice. She served no jail time but was punished by an onerous probation and the stipulation that she could never participate in competitive figure skating again.
In the media and popular myth Nancy Kerrigan became the All American girl on her way to Disney World, and Tonya Harding was forever consigned to a nether world of trashy conniving villains. So why nearly a quarter century later should we care about Tonya Harding enough to bother with a pseudo-documentary that reconfigures her in a somewhat sympathetic light?
For one thing, it’s no longer Harding who is on trial, we are — the celebrity obsessed America that conflates what’s essentially gossip with “news” of very questionable “human interest.” We are a people who demand heroes and villains — and once someone is cast as a villain the facts be damned, their villainy is forever.
And another reason to care is that I, Tonya makes some powerful statements about the dynamics of victimhood and social class.
At the beginning of the movie we see four year old Tonya being pushed into figure skating by a physically and emotionally abusive mother. Her redneck waitress mom, LaVona Harding, is brilliantly played by Allison Janney. It will likely win Janney an Oscar. Other than Joan Crawford I cant recall any mothers on the big screen being quite so cynical, evil and controlling. Also, the film strenuously makes the point that the Hardings are lower class — about the level of trailer trash — and that Tonya with her crude mom and home made outfits doesn’t quite fit in. Lady figure skaters have typically come from upper middle class white collar families.
But little Tonya can skate like a demon and is soon beating girls twice her age — and the tykes that play young Tonya are adorable.
At the age of 16, Tonya starts having an affair with Jeff Gilooly who is three years older. Her mother objects to the relationship but not because Gillooly is unsafe but because he might affect her career and also mom’s control. Like many abused children Tonya turns to an abusive partner. It’s what the abused are familiar with, and from a psychodynamic perspective the abused spend their lives unconsciously trying to rectify the earlier relationship.
The mockumentary narrative is moved forward by a succession of interviews with all the principles: Tonya, Gillooly, her mom, her coach, etc. Bobby Cannavale at his smarmy best plays cynical Hard Copy producer Martin Maddox and lardy Paul Walter Hauser is hysterical as Shawn Eckhardt Tonya’s bumbling “bodyguard.” Both he and Cannavale should be nominated for some supporting comedic award.
To this writer figure skating is the most beautiful of all sports and in this film the skating sequences are flawlessly done– and breathtaking. Harding was the first female skater to perform a triple axel in competition, and seeing it performed on the big screen made my heart leap. Tonya is played by Australian actress Margot Robbie. While athletic, prior to the film Robbie had no significant skating experience. Her performance is Oscar-worthy. The pain in her narrative cracks the granitic cynical façade of the film thru which light flows. This is a movie that while hysterically and darkly funny was also very moving. The tragic arc of Tonya’s life brought me to the edge of tears.