I, Tonya (2017)
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Produced by Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie, Steven Rogers, Bryan Unkeless
Written by Steven Rogers
Cinematography by Nicholas Karakatsanis
Edited by Tatiana S. Riegel
Library DVD (1:59)
“Why can’t it just be about the skating?”
Figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) asks this question to a panel of judges just after she has clearly given a superb performance on the ice. She’s given safe, pat answers that allow the judges to weasel out of the real answer, the answer a different judge later gives Tonya in a parking garage as he’s attempting to make a clean escape: you don’t fit the image we’re looking for.
I, Tonya is a marvel of a film, somewhat like Harding herself: it meets audiences on its own terms, not theirs. It follows the rules, but breaks them just enough to make you think it might collapse, but doesn’t. It’s darkly comedic and sometimes over-the-top, but never loses sight of its focus, and let’s make this clear: that focus is not on Tonya Harding.
Anyone who was even halfway paying attention in the 1990s will know the story of Tonya Harding, the Nancy Kerrigan scandal (the “incident”), and the media circus that surrounded it. I won’t rehash it here. You can read the Wikipedia article or just watch the movie. The short version? Tonya was a poor kid from a single-parent home with an abusive mom who constantly pushed her to become a competitive skater. Despite an enormous amount of work and considerable talent, Tonya didn’t convey the “look” of a figure skater. Her unkempt frizzy blonde hair wasn’t acceptable, her homemade outfits weren’t elegant enough, she was crude, she had no cultural panache. She simply didn’t fit in and never would, unless she could become so good that people couldn’t ignore her.
But would even that be enough?
The film begins in a pseudo-documentary style that introduces us to all the principal players: Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney), Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Gillooly’s friend and “mastermind” of the Nancy Kerrigan debacle, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), and, of course, Tonya herself, who narrates the story, giving us frequent commentary. In fact, many characters provide ongoing commentary by breaking the fourth wall, looking into the camera, delivering justification, excuses, and “This is what I was thinking” moments. It’s at this point that some audiences may feel they’re in the midst of a dark comedy and only in the midst of a dark comedy. A rock soundtrack (songs like Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman,” Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Romeo and Juliet”) further alerts audiences that they’ve been here before.
And then we get an accumulation of scenes with the abusive, manipulative LaVona. Now we have someone to hate, right? And Gillooly and Shawn are just a couple of idiots, not only providing comic relief, but further underscoring the idea that Tonya’s a victim, right? But LaVona’s verbal abuse is real. Gillooly’s physical abuse is real. Tonya’s snubbing by the powers-that-be in the skating world is real. And Tonya clearly contributes to her own problems. But how much of the blame can we assign to her and how much to her environment?
I, Tonya does far more than ask the questions, “Are you simply a product of your environment and can you do anything about it?” It certainly does this, but it’s not content to ask only those questions. Think about the number of times you’ve seen some local athlete who could nail three-point shots in basketball or run up and down the football field seemingly untouched. Or maybe you’ve known musicians with incredible technical proficiency, singers with such raw talent that commands the attention of everyone in the room. Performers of all types, if they want to make it big, often find out that they lack something that they can’t control or change, at least not significantly: image. Sometimes you can change it to a certain degree and for awhile you might be able to fake it, but often audiences refuse your acceptance. The deck is stacked against you.
It would be unfair to say that watching I, Tonya is like watching a train wreck. You know you shouldn’t watch, but you just can’t look away. We look at Tonya, knowing the outcome, and wonder if all this is ultimately her fault. We want her to win. Don’t we?
Well, don’t we?
I, Tonya asks us to observe how a disaster is constructed. We look from the safety of a theater, a couch, a computer, a smartphone, etc. From a distance. We can sit back and congratulate ourselves that, thank God, this didn’t happen to us. After all, we’re smarter than Tonya, we would make better choices, surround ourselves with smarter friends, be more savvy about the culture of the area we want to excel in, and good Lord, my mother’s not that bad. But as these things play out, we watch, we made decisions, and we judge, just as harshly as those Olympic judges in the film. We might even change our minds for a moment or two, but then we regain our senses and move on to the next thing, remembering only the outcome. As Tonya herself says in the film, “I was loved… for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punchline.” That would be a hell of an epitaph.
Near the end of the film, we see Tonya engaged in another sport, perhaps one better suited to her nature. (I do not mean this as a derogatory statement.) The audience for this sport is more honest, displaying none of the courtesies and decorum of the figure skating world. You know exactly where you stand with this crowd. And if you look at them closely, you’ll notice it’s a very diverse group, which represents us all. At this point, Tonya seems to understand something about herself and a level of acceptance has arrived for her. She may have just leap-frogged the audience towards a greater level of understanding how herself and the world.
I suspect that most people will remember I, Tonya due to Allison Janney’s Oscar-winning performance as Tonya’s mother LaVona, a domineering, insulting mom who makes today’s cheerleading and soccer moms look like Doris Day. I do not mean to take anything away from Janney’s performance: it is tremendous. She isn’t a one-dimensional badass; Janney gives depth and shading to a character who’s housing underlying demons and insecurities of her own, although she’d never admit them to Tonya or anyone else. Janney is wonderful, but at least some of the strength of this performance comes from the writing.
As good as Allison Janney’s performance is, I was far more impressed with Margot Robbie. Late in the film, we see Tonya sitting before a mirror, emotionally distraught, trying to put on her “game” face before a competition. She smears two marks of rouge on her face with a vengeance, then evens out the color with so much force she might as well be bruising herself. All the while she’s trying to corral her emotions long enough to make herself presentable for the judges and the audience. Robbie’s facial muscles go through a marvelous transformation as she tries to contain them, and for a moment, she does. Then a tear escapes and becomes a torrent. In a year filled with tremendous performances in the Best Actress Oscar category, Robbie’s may be the most under-appreciated. It may also be the strongest. I have seen them all and am convinced that Robbie’s role required perhaps the greatest combination of skills and risk-taking.
The film often asks: what is the truth? What you see and what you accept? One thing we must accept as the truth is that something in figure skating spoke to Tonya Harding. What happened – what truly happened from that point on – is largely open to interpretation. We’re often told from a very young age that we can ultimately do anything with our lives. Is that truth? Do we accept that? Or do we arrive at our own truths? Many will view I, Tonya without considering such questions and those people will see the film as many saw Harding herself: just one more scandalous news story (both sad and laughable) to keep us entertained until the next one comes along. There’s more to I, Tonya than that. Yes, I, Tonya is about Tonya Harding, but only in passing. This is really a film about you and me.
Photos: Roger Ebert, Hi Def Digest, Flickering Myth, Culture Vultures