Oscar Movie Roundup! I, Tonya: Skating by to tell a different story
In the lead up to the Oscars, we will be posting reviews for some of the nominated movies. The forth review in our series is for I, Tonya, which received three nominations, including Best Actress (Margot Robbie) and Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney).
Whether or not you know the details about the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and Tonya Harding’s (possible) involvement in the assault, you might still have your opinions on what exactly transpired. The story was reported on internationally, and leading up to the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, was the big topic on everybody’s mind. Even now, over twenty years later, the attack is still a big topic of discussion. Only last week I talked to someone who thought Kerrigan had died in the strike against her. Impressions like that are not uncommon, and a lot of people feel very negatively about Tonya Harding to this day.
It’s clear to see why that is in retrospect. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, television coverage of Kerrigan and Harding portrayed the two as the ice princess and the redneck, dueling for the number one spot. Their (supposed) rivalry was well known. From there it was easy to set up the narrative that we all know today of, simply, the bad girl hurting the good girl.
The biopic I, Tonya leans into Harding’s blue collar upbringing, reminding you in every way it can that she is seen by others, and perceives herself to be, white trash. Margot Robbie, who stars as Tonya Harding, conveys to the audience that she didn’t fit in because she had a different attitude – rude and rough around the edges, standing out in her cheap, homemade skating costumes.
The public perception of Tonya Harding throughout her professional skating career was of an outsider. She didn’t look like the average woman in figure skating – she was muscular and broad, which contrasted with the more slight and “feminine” physiques of her competition, and was often called a “tough cookie.” To some that was good thing – sports writers (most of who were men) saw Harding’s athleticism as an accomplishment. However, to those in the elite world of ladies figure skating, it made her “other.”
Margot Robbie, for all of her talents and dedication to the role, does not fit that bill. She is just simply miscast as Tonya Harding, not only because of her physique, but because she doesn’t possess Harding’s raw intensity. Yes, Tonya was boisterous; unapologetically so. She also hunted, knew car mechanics, and drag raced. Harding also infamously skated to popular rock songs at competitions, something that was never done. I, Tonya proudly showcases all of that as though it’s enough to characterise her and her struggles. But it doesn’t.
Margot Robbie’s conventional beauty undermines the challenges Harding faced. I’m against actors putting themselves through extreme diets to lose or gain weight for a role – it’s unhealthy and dangerous. I wouldn’t ever advise that Robbie do it for this role. But for Tonya’s appearance to be forgotten as an element of who she was as an athlete and how she was seen and judged, and then stress her “white trash” upbringing to compensate for that, makes her into a joke.
Figure skating is unlike most sports in that there are no definitive points – scores are based on the assessments of a panel of judges and who is a better skater is a total matter of opinion. The figure skating establishment has a history of preferring more feminine and dainty women. U.S. Figure Skating, the organization responsible for sending athletes to the Olympics, believed that Nancy Kerrigan, America’s sweetheart, was the ideal representative for their country, not Tonya Harding.
This point is mentioned very briefly in the film when Tonya follows a judge to their car and pleads for him to tell her what she needs to do better to make the team. The judge says, “It’s never been entirely about the skating,” and that she’s “not the image they want to portray.” They wanted someone with the all-American looking, meaning a wholesome appearance and a functional family.
The real-life turmoil that I, Tonya focuses on is the abusive relationship Harding has with her mother, LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), and her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). The physical abuse is extremely visceral. The actors were given creative control over the scenes, and at times needed to be reined in. One dramatized fight between Robbie and Stan apparently got so heated, director Craig Gillespie said Stan completely demolished a set.
Tonya’s hard home life is a significant aspect to her story. Harding has said her childhood with her mother is a sore spot, but has spoken candidly about what it was like in many interviews. I, Tonya’s detailed depiction of moving from one abusive relationship to another, and the sentiment of wanting to be loved, is heartbreaking and an important component of the film.
As an Oscar vehicle for and by Robbie (she’s also one of the producers), I, Tonya depicts Harding as a sympathetic character. Throughout the last third of the movie, Harding is shown doing very little to move the plot forward (thus being shown to be not culpable for the attack on Kerrigan) and is seen mostly reacting to the events around her.
Although I maintain that Robbie was miscast, she’s a very likeable as an actor and there were moments when I could see Tonya and not just Margot. The movie is worth seeing for the figure skating sequences. Watching Tonya skate is extremely exhilarating. The camera is always moving with her, incorporating the feeling of gliding on the ice, and adding momentum to the film. In one of the last scenes, after the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, when Tonya is banned from competitive figure skating for life, you see the devastation in Robbie’s face and posture as Tonya’s first love is taken away from her.
As someone who grew up watching a lot of figure skating and knowing about the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal, I was hoping to see more of Kerrigan in the movie. But Caitlin Carver, who plays Nancy, was given little to no lines and barely appears in I, Tonya. I don’t understand the creative reasoning – if it draws more focus towards Harding as an individual – or if it was for legal purposes. But it made the motives for attacking Nancy seemingly random.
I, Tonya is very entertaining and has some stellar performances. However, the sentiment that Tonya was mislabeled as a bad guy is played a bit heavy handily at the end of the film. Harding says America likes to hate someone as much as they like to love someone, and it feels as if the movie is placing some blame on the public for her actions. Yes, Tonya Harding had a hard life, and she was treated harshly by most people, but her past doesn’t excuse her tangential role in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and the fact that she’s never properly apologized for what happened.