Best Actress Watch: Can Margot Robbie Skate to Gold As Tonya Harding?

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Photo: LuckyChap Entertainment/TIFF

This year’s Best Actress race is stacked with laureled veterans and exciting newcomers, and it promises to be a real contest. Many of the leading-lady contenders will be appearing at this week’s Toronto Film Festival, and Vulture is on the ground in Canada to help you sort through their Oscar odds. Which of these talented women will make the final five?

The Actress: Margot Robbie, 27.

The Awards History: Robbie has not yet been nominated for a major award, though her breakthrough role in The Wolf of Wall Street put her within spitting distance of a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

The Role: How familiar are you with the sordid saga of Tonya Harding?

If you’re wholly unfamiliar with the disgraced figure-skating star, or you can only somewhat recall the 1994 incident where Harding was caught up in a plot to take out her Olympic teammate Nancy Kerrigan, then I, Tonya may prove to be a revelation. After all, this is a story full of such outlandish twists and turns that when the script was sent to Australian native Robbie, she had no idea it was based on something that actually happened. Inept hired goons, out-of-control criminal conspiring, and an Olympic finale where Harding and Kerrigan compete against each other after all that bad blood has spilled out into the open? It’s almost too absurd to be believed, which is why the nation was so riveted when it all went down.

Robbie plays Harding much more sympathetically than you might expect — that is, if you’re going into this film with any expectations at all. If you’re not, it will be easier to focus on Robbie’s long-arc performance, which she commits to wholeheartedly whether she’s playing Tonya as a brace-faced teenager or as a dissolute, present-day adult. One of Robbie’s greatest gifts as a performer is her ability to play incredulous — the con-artist film Focus, where she looked continually dazzled by Will Smith’s sleight-of-hand, would have collapsed early on if she didn’t make you believe in all of it. That ability serves Robbie even better in I, Tonya: When she reacts with wide-open eyes to the bad behavior inflicted on her by abusive husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) or mom-from-hell LaVona (Allison Janney), you want to leap from your seat and make things right for her. And when the light goes out in Tonya’s eyes — when, instead of seeming incredulous at these continued indignities, she just passively accepts them as part of her shitty lot in life — Robbie gets to play the tragedy in this comedy, and you feel what’s been lost.

I won’t stand in the way of the raves Robbie earned at last night’s premiere — she’s immensely talented, and I, Tonya lets her show what she’s capable of — though as someone who was obsessed with the Tonya-Nancy drama when it all went down, I do have one significant quibble: As good as Robbie is … she’s not Tonya. The whole thing with Harding was that she was a squat, 5’1” sparkplug without the poise, willowy frame, or conventional beauty that figure-skating judges wanted from their champions. Robbie is a statuesque stunner who’s even taller than Nancy Kerrigan, a blonde bombshell whose beauty is barely dimmed by her frizzy hair and bad ’90s clothes. You can give Margot Robbie a bad haircut but it doesn’t make her look like Tonya Harding, just Jaime Pressly.

That’s significant because much is made of how unattractive Harding is supposed to be in this movie. She marries Gillooly because he’s the first person to ever tell her she’s beautiful, and when Harding protests to a trainer that she’s out of shape, the trainer sizes her up and says, “Pear is a shape.” But … it’s Margot Robbie! She’s tall and lithe! They don’t even pad Robbie up until flash-forwards set decades later, so it all just seems off. This is a character who’s not supposed to resemble a figure skater at all — she has a chip on her shoulder for exactly that reason — but she’s been cast with a woman who could not look more like the platonic ideal of an ice princess.

And once you start pulling on that loose thread, a lot of things in I, Tonya are liable to unravel. Why is this iconically 1990s story soundtracked by Now That’s What I Call 1970s Music Cues? Was it wise to shoot Robbie’s figure skating in long, unbroken takes that involved so much CG face-replacement that she skates right into the uncanny valley? And isn’t it a little disingenuous for the film to spend two-thirds of its running time mocking these characters for being lowlife idiots and then, in its last moralizing act, to have Robbie stare straight into the camera to chastise us for laughing? She sells it, I just wasn’t buying.

In Her Favor: Robbie is the sort of beautiful ingenue that the Academy likes to back early in her career, and a nomination for I, Tonya could also be seen as a make-good for that Wolf of Wall Street snub. She’s an enormously appealing actress who could be a winning campaigner if she makes time to shake hands and kiss babies. And despite my qualms with the film, even I can attest that Janney is great as Robbie’s expletive-hissing mother. If the film is released this year, she is dead certain to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and if you’re already recognizing one performer, why not make it a package deal?

Working Against Her: As of this article’s writing, I, Tonya still hasn’t been picked up for distribution, so there’s no telling whether it will come out in 2017. The film played well and got some strong early tweets after its premiere, so I do expect it to crash the awards-season party, but it will need a smart distributor and savvy publicists, because I’m not sure that big-name critics will give I, Tonya the same gushy pass once it actually gets released.

Can Margot Robbie Skate to Oscar Gold As Tonya Harding?