I, Tonya Turns Tonya Harding From a Punchline Into a Sympathetic Character

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Photo: LuckyChap Entertainment/Clubhouse Pictures

One thing that isn’t talked about enough vis-a-vis biopics is what a huge, huge, huge deal they become in the lives of their subjects who are still alive — milestones that never make it into the movies’ final crawls. The one for I, Tonya could conceivably read, “Tonya Harding’s life underwent a momentous change when she agreed to be interviewed for a sympathetic biopic starring Australian star Margot Robbie that portrayed her as the victim of a psychotically abusive mother and husband rather than an evil little scheming piece of white trash.”

I have to admit that I went into the Toronto International Film Festival premiere expecting an evil little scheming white-trash I, Claudius and came out dabbing at my tears, thinking, “Where’s Tonya? I want to see her face when she gets a standing ovation.” But Tonya’s not here and who can blame her for being wary? She knows her name is a punchline. She even says it in the movie.

I, Tonya is not by any means a weeper. It’s a black comedy, and parts of it are too broad, like a second-rate Coen brothers movie. (The festival already has a second-rate Coen brothers script — or part of one — with Suburbicon.) Many of the meta-jokes — when the characters turn to the camera and say things like, “I didn’t really do this!” — feel cheap. The story is good enough not to need them.

The structural gimmick is that the actors play their characters 25 years after the “incident,” and each spins (bitterly) his or her own version of what happened. Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers seem to take Tonya at her word, though. They know they have the mother of all bad-mother stories.

The mother, LaVona Golden, is played to howling effect by Allison Janney with what The Drama of the Gifted Child author Alice Miller might describe as a perfect storm of narcissism — she’s a righteous saboteur. Janney purges the moistness from her voice, so that her words come out low, gritty, and unmusical. She looks and sounds like the husk of a cicada you find sometimes in summer. Her soul is desiccated. She shoves Tonya out on the ice, angry over her losses and jealous over her wins. “You skate like a graceless bull dyke,” she tells Tonya. And she hits, too. She’s violent enough to drive Tonya into the arms of the first man to tell her she’s pretty, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who unfortunately hits more often and harder. No wonder she skates without smiling.

But skate she does, in defiance of judges who tell her she’s a bad fit for the skating industry. White trash, essentially. Only once does the movie mention the other impediment she faced, when she complains to her estranged coach (Julianne Nicholson) that she has lost her shape and the coach says, “Pear is a shape.” The real Tonya didn’t have the willowy, long-limbed frame of Nancy Kerrigan or more “classically” proportioned skaters. (The prejudice against her body type is even stronger in ballet.) That makes Harding’s successes all the more remarkable. Can we now say she was good enough to be a champion?

Margot Robbie is naturally lither than Harding. She has to overcome the slimness and buoyancy that Nature bestowed on her, visible in Toronto in a Q&A after the screening where she was all Aussie blonde sunniness. But she and whatever doubles were used capture every bit of Harding’s driving athleticism. Robbie sometimes overdoes Harding’s straining demeanor, which disappeared only when she brought off the awesome triple axel that put her in the books — a spontaneous grin that made her suddenly look about a thousand pounds lighter. But the actress works hard and transcends caricature. She evokes how trapped Tonya must have felt. Her eyes seem to grow more dilated as the movie goes on. When you watch her apply her makeup, you see a woman longing to be pretty enough to transcend the ugliness around her.

There’s a lot of ugliness. The ’70s and ’80s interiors are garish in that striving-for-sophistication way, and scenes are lighted and composed to look like those awful Polaroids that would develop (or half-develop) before your eyes. Stan’s Gillooly is a puzzle, which makes him the most insidious of abusers — he looks reasonable up to the instant the fist connects, and then he’s full of pleas and promises until the next whap.

I, Tonya takes an unfortunate turn when “the incident” is dramatized: Gillespie can’t resist making the freelance thugs look even stupider than they were, and Tonya’s noninvolvement means she briefly drops out of the movie and leaves us alone with cretins — among them the virulent mama’s (fat) boy Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). As in one of Toronto’s other premieres, Molly’s Game, a case is being made that a strong woman has been scapegoated and made to suffer — in this case for life — for the actions of weak, selfish men. In this film, too, I choose to buy it. It makes more sense than the prevailing idea — that Tonya Harding masterminded one of the dumbest schemes in Olympic sports.

The Olympics climax is heartbreaking. Those of us who watched it live remember the sadistic pleasure of seeing Harding fall apart on the ice, in part thanks to the poetic revenge of a wayward shoelace. Experiencing the event from the other side made me ashamed at being part of that vast, jeering audience. Movies are so powerful that way, and seeing them at festivals like the one in Toronto — where you’re constantly hearing distant roars from crowds amassing around various red carpets — make them more vivid yet. Tonya, come North!

I, Tonya Turns Tonya Harding Into a Sympathetic Character