At any other time, it would be easy to see cash-grabbing studios eager to create a nostalgic, inspiring film about the delicate ice princess victimized in one of the craziest sports scandals in history: At the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Kerrigan was clubbed on the right knee with a police baton, an attack reportedly orchestrated by Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly.
The camera footage of Kerrigan bellowing, “Why?” following the incident made her triumphant return to the rink months later, where she performed one of the best skates of her life, all the more heartwarming. A comeback fit for the Hollywood screen.
Yet 23 years later, here we are with a film that’s a pointed middle finger to all that, and with eyes on its own unlikely golden prize: Director Craig Gillepsie’s alternately humanizing and hilarious biopic of Tonya Harding, with designs to be a major player at this year’s Oscars.
Starring the blindingly gorgeous and glamorous Margot Robbie, donning a medley of wigs, makeup, prosthetics, and skating lessons of her own to pass as Harding, the film is brazen, erratic, brutish, at times naïve, and hard to trust—kind of like Harding was herself.
Yet despite its bold, self-declaring title—I, Tonya, it says definitively—what it doesn’t actually have is an identity.
On the one hand, we get it. Everyone has an opinion on Harding, given the obscene amounts of press coverage she logged during her unlikely rise and wilder fall. But no one actually knows her story.
I, Tonya tells it with great sympathy, offering a tender lens to her dirt-poor upbringing at the unforgiving hand of her crass, domineering mother (Allison Janney, adding an Oscar-worthy performance to the Mama From Hell canon), and then damning the cruel cold shoulder she received from the figure skating community for being a crude interloper in the wealthy and prim sorority.
At one point her coach (Julianne Nicholson, brilliant as Julianne Nicholson is always) tells her she needs a fur coat to be accepted; Harding fashions one out of rabbits she shot and skinned herself.
Then there’s the domestic abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, Gillooly, who she met when she was 15. Their turbulent relationship included at least two restraining orders, countless black eyes, and, at least according to Harding, a reconciliation that the U.S. Figure Skating Association pressured her into because her divorce didn’t reflect the image of a wholesome female skating star it wanted to project—and punished her with poor scores until it happened.
Where the filmmakers get cheeky is playing with the idea of perspective. It’s not just, “Who is Tonya Harding?” but “Whose version of her are we going to believe?”
The gimmick here is that I, Tonya is a mock documentary, with to-camera interviews with Robbie’s Harding, Sebastian Stan’s Gillooly, Janney’s LaVona Golden, and scattered other characters from her life all offering their own takes on events.
A title card warns as the film begins that it’s “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” which gets a good chuckle. But the unreliable narrator shtick doesn’t end with the confessionals. The characters routinely break the fourth wall in the middle of scenes to defend what they’re doing, or call the other party a liar.
“There’s no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth,” Harding says at one point. It is a complicated and provocative suggestion, but one that is hard to stomach when it’s being employed during, say, graphic scenes depicting the physical violence Gillooly would inflict on her. There are winking jokes that suggest Harding gave it as good as she got it, maybe even suggesting she deserved the abuse, or wasn’t entirely truthful about it.
A portrait of how a cruel society ignored the grave and lasting effects suffered by a woman as she spent her entire life putting her trust in one abuser to the next? That’s a movie that we need to see, and certainly resonates today. A movie that mines the abuse for some of its broadest comedy, going so far as to question whether the woman is telling the whole truth? Not so much.
And the reason it should make you uncomfortable is because it is so entertaining.
While the physical transformation doesn’t rise above the level of a Saturday Night Live sketch—you can’t really get past “Margot Robbie in a wig”—Robbie, who likely narrowly missed on an Oscar nomination for her work in The Wolf of Wall Street, is a dynamo in this. She attacks each element with Harding-like gusto, traveling from gawky teenager to embittered fortysomething and modulating her performance skillfully at each stop.
The film comes alive at its biggest, broadest moments, be it Robbie giving life to the ruthlessness with which Harding had to claw her way to the top of the podium, Janney’s tart-tongued one-liners, the bumbling buffoonery of the deranged Scooby gang that attempted to pull off the Kerrigan assault, or, yes, even those brutal showdowns between the tortured married couple.
But the frivolity and glee with which I, Tonya peppers Harding’s story with comedy, though at times truly riotous, makes the film sometimes uncomfortable. There is no shortage of tragedy, short sticks drawn, and abuse that made for a choppy life. It’s almost like the film uses humor like a Zamboni, smoothing over those most painful moments with tongue-in-cheek laughs, perhaps assuming it would make it all more palatable.
It’s an admirable ambition, but executing such rapid shifts in tone requires skates with a sharper edge.
It reflects a weird evolution of the Harding-Kerrigan saga, which has somehow become celebrated for its camp—a hipster museum in Brooklyn, a play performed in drag, impersonators—and erased of its tragedy, the darkness of what happened and what might have led to it. I, Tonya, which is worthwhile viewing for many reasons, is at least laudable for reminding us of that.
More than two decades have passed since Harding became the first U.S. woman to land the triple axel in competition—a feat that changed the sport in a way that Harding still doesn’t get due credit for—and her infamy has certainly faded, having long since milked her notoriety for all its worth.
Times are different. Our conversations are different. As such, Harding’s career and relationship with the media is an intriguing one to revisit.
The way she was treated by a ravenous press, demeaned for her looks, fetishized for an upbringing that was atypical in a stereotypically prissy sport, and exploited by a public with an insatiable appetite for outlandish coverage of her—yep, we’re all implicated. The think pieces she would have inspired. Hell, the think pieces the film actually does.
In the end, the film is a lot like Harding’s iconic performance at the 1991 U.S. Nationals, the competition at which she landed that triple axel.
I, Tonya is one-of-a-kind and definitely rough around the edges, dressed up to awkwardly fit in with the more traditional award season contenders. There’s all the ambition, progressiveness, and danger of the triple axel. It’s astonishing to watch the attempt to pull it all off, and in the end pretty damn rousing—even if the landing is admittedly pretty wobbly.