“I, Tonya” was a popular ticket at AFI FEST and although the movie is excellent and Margot Robbie does a good job in this biographical black comedy about the Tonya Harding scandal, in some ways she is not the right person to play Harding. “I, Tonya” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, had two special screening at AFI FEST, and will be released on 8 December 2017 in the US.
The movie begins with coughing heard to a black screen.
White letters inform us that the movie is:
Based on irony free
wildly contradictory totally true interviews
with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.
We soon learn that Harding was fifth child from husband number four. She (Mckenna Grace is the young Tonya) begins skating because her mother feels Tonya has too much energy. Cliff Richard’s 1983 hit, “Devil Woman” song introduces LaVona (A terrifying gruff with no soft center portrayal by Allison Janney) on the ice, confronting the teacher, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who at first refuses due to age, but eventually relents because LaVona won’t take “no” for an answer. LaVona also won’t let Harding off the ice during practice–even for a bathroom break, with predictable and embarrassing results. The movie plays this as a two-girl competition, but in reality there was more to it than that.
Kerrigan was often portrayed as an All-American girl. She was pretty. Like Harding, her family was blue collar, but intact. She fit into the ideal of what an American figure skater should look like, attracting corporate sponsors like Campbell’s Soup, Evian and Reebok before the 1992 Olympics. Her sponsorship seemed to be better or at least more visible than those of Kristi Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi, the daughter of a dentist, had been second at the US Championships in 1991 (to Harding) and first at the World Championships where Harding was second and Kerrigan third.
At the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold; Kerrigan, the bronze and Tonya Harding placed fourth. Japan’s Midori Ito–the first woman to land a triple axel, finished second to take the silver. At the World’s that year, Yamaguchi was again first, with Kerrigan second and Chen Lu third. Harding was sixth.
As “I, Tonya” shows, Harding did not fit into the mold of a lady in a sport that asks for ladies. She came from a family that struggled to stay together (and failed). She hunted, drag raced, smoke and drank. Her mother sewed her costumes and was physically abusive. While neither Yamaguchi nor Kerrigan were married at the time of the 1992 Winter Olympics, Harding had married Jeff Gillooly in 1990 and would divorce him soon after the Olympics.
By 1994, the year of the attack on Kerrigan after a practice session for the nationals, Harding was divorced from Gillooly who, with Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, planned that attack, hiring Shane Stant. On the film, the attack is played out like a comedy of errors with Harding and Gillooly believing all that will happen is death threat letters. Shawn Eckhardt has bigger but not necessarily better ideas.
Gillooly is portrayed as a dim dude by Sebastian Stan. He is not particularly ambitious and not a gold digger. He doesn’t really think that far ahead. Paul Walter Hauser’s Eckhardt thinks big but in a way that defies logic, partially because he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.
While Robbie skillfully handles both the dramatic and comedic demands of her role, making Harding tough but sympathetic, I was distracted by her resemblance to the real Nancy Kerrigan. With her bangs pulled back, she looked like a thin, bleached-blonde version of Kerrigan. The woman who plays Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) is too small and thin. Kerrigan was 5-foot-4. Harding was 5-foot-1 and a much broader body type than Robbie. Robbie is taller than both Harding and Kerrigan, 5-foot-6. Caitlin Carver is 5-foot-4.
Like Harding, Kerrigan was not a truly nice person. Her comments before the awards ceremony at Lillehammer toward the gold medalist Oksana Baiul from Ukraine, failure to attend the closing ceremonies and her on-mike comments at Disney World Parade tarnished her wholesome all-American image.
There are factual errors in “I, Tonya.” Harding was not the first American to land a triple axel nor was she the first woman. Ito was the first woman to land a triple axel in competition and the first to land a triple-triple jump combination. The jump is named after Norway’s Axel Paulsen who first performed the jump in 1882. USA skater Dick Button was the first skater credited with landing it in competition at the 1948 Winter Olympics. Canada’s Vern Taylor was the first to land one (Button’s was considered under-rotated) at the 1978 World Figure Skating Championships.
While the triple axel became a standard for men, it was not for women. Ito was the first woman to land one in competition (1988 NHK Trophy). Harding was the first American woman to land one in competition. The movie uses the exact wording of the original skating segment where Harding lands a triple axel in competition, but movie-going audiences, at this point, do not have the context.
Secondly, while the costume design by Jennifer Johnson (“20th Century Women”) does a good job of replicating the famous costumes worn for competition by both Harding and Kerrigan, in both cases, she makes the coverage skimpier. The trunk portion below the skirt seems to be French cut. In reality, both Harding and Kerrigan had outfits that supplied ample coverage of their derrieres. Kerrigan’s were supplied by Vera Wang.
While Robbie’s performance gives you a rough diamond that never quite gets the right cut to shine, the movie really belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden. Janney makes this devil woman sympathetic and funny despite her abusive ways and vocabulary that is never PG-13. While this Harding doesn’t take enough responsibility, one has to wonder if she could have been as great without the abuse and if she could have managed her talent better with better opportunities. This Tonya is both a victim and her own worst enemy.
“I, Tonya” is a darkly funny tragedy about an incident brought negative attention to figure skating and the movie manages to show the stars of every Winter Olympics as gritty and determined athletes.