As a girl, whenever I heard about the disgraced Olympic figure skater and tabloid staple Tonya Harding, I couldn’t quite grasp the nuances of why she was spoken of with such venom. But I did understand that Harding was a lesson in the kind of woman I’d grown up being told not to be.
As Connie Chung notes in the excellent documentary 30 for 30: The Price of Gold, “Tonya Harding was hard-bitten, gutsy, athletic. A phenomenal skater. She could jump higher. She could spin faster and she was determined.” But she was also antithetical to the refined image of femininity that figure skating seeks to uphold, never shedding the signals of her working-class background or the fearsome ambition that laced her every move. During a practice lesson of the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, her glamorous, exceedingly graceful rival Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man who was later identified as an associate of Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. As Harding’s involvement became clearer, a narrative easily formed, splashed on the pages of tabloids and the evening news: The beautiful “American princess” versus her rough-hewn rival, whose refusal to sand off her thorny edges meant she would never fully fit into the establishment she sought to excel in. That this narrative congealed so quickly is indicative of how certain strictures are often placed on women’s identities, especially when rivalry and ambition are involved.
In watching Harding’s performances in footage from the 1980s and early 1990s, it’s immediately clear that this is a girl who, on the ice at least, learned to transmute her rage into a form of energy that propelled her to greater athletic heights. That’s why I initially found it hard to imagine the alluring 27-year-old Australian actress Margot Robbie — perhaps most widely known for her sharp-tongued vixen turn in Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street — playing Harding from her harsh teenage years through her 40s, as she navigates life out of the spotlight. The grace and allure that colors Robbie’s screen presence makes her seem, at first blush, more suited to play Kerrigan. But just a few minutes into I, Tonya, I found myself captivated by the anger and blunt physicality that define Robbie’s performance, which is nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy Sunday night.
I, Tonya is a gloriously messy film. Its sly critique of camp and surprisingly honest portrayal of poverty got under my skin in ways I didn’t expect. Just shy of two hours long, the story tracks Tonya’s rise and fall, dramatizing many of the events that have become lore in the cultural imagination — the abuse that her mother, LeVona (Allison Janney), enacts without an iota of remorse, her abusive young marriage to Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her masochistic victim complex, and her image as the perfect villain as her career tumbled into disrepair. Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers rely on a framing device of interviews with the older versions of the people at the heart of this uniquely American, often-farcical tragedy, along with meta flashbacks and occasional fantastical interludes.
The film falters when it steers away from Robbie’s performance, which lends a thematic throughline to a story that is all too eager to vault between the perspectives of several characters. For all its stylistic excess, I, Tonya taps into something real, thanks to the electric charge of its lead’s performance. She’s glorious to behold. Robbie is able to acknowledge that Tonya’s hard-bitten nature is rooted in a place of hurt, which is apparent in every faltering smile and piercing glare. She moves like a wounded animal, operating best when she veers toward flashes of violence, verbal and otherwise. She’s able to lace a barbed irreverence into the character’s foibles without turning her into an empty camp caricature, which would be all too easy to do given the tabloid nature of Tonya’s story. But what makes Robbie’s performance one that has haunted me since I first watched it months ago is how it revels in and communicates the intricacies of undiluted female rage. Much of this is apparent in the grandest moment of the film.
Beneath the credits for I, Tonya, a grainy video of Tonya plays, nailing the difficult triple axel move at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championship (making her the first American woman to do so in a competition), which the film dramatizes about 40 minutes into its run time. Her teal outfit shifts with each movement of her body. The crowd claps and watches with rapt attention. What strikes me is Tonya’s face after she performs the triple axel — it’s marked by unfiltered, pure happiness. In the film’s version of this landmark event, Robbie perfectly encapsulates this feeling, adding an undertow of something a bit darker: Tonya’s need for acceptance is quenched, if only for a moment. Whenever Tonya nails a performance, Robbie’s face glitters with pride, joy, and an undercurrent of a “fuck you” to everyone in the audience, as if to say, “You didn’t think I could do it, huh?”
But it’s the smaller moments that kept drawing me into in Robbie’s performance. The way she holds a spoon as she eats cereal with such white-knuckled intensity you’d think it was her last meal; the angle of her jaw when she steps onto the ice, facing judges she knows loathe the transparency of her working-class background; and the tender hurt in her eyes when she confronts a judge in the parking lot about her score, and learns that no matter her skill, her inability to live up to the proper, soft standard for women in figure skating would bar her from the adoration she yearned for.
Robbie’s performance has a built-in awards-season narrative that has earned actors including Charlize Theron and Leonardo DiCaprio Oscar gold: transformation. Watch as the typically beautiful Robbie morphs herself into the stout, splotchy-skinned redneck who flipped from being a champion figure skater to a pariah partially by her own making. The belief that ostentatious physical transformation — whether dramatic weight gain or uglifying a bombshell — is the height of actorly skill is a modern impression I have railed against repeatedly. Such work is built upon making the labor of acting visible enough to lend importance to a performance, and it can often lead actors to forget the more fine-tuned interiority that makes a character feel real. But part of what makes Robbie’s performance feel so alive is not the more obvious representations of this transformation. It’s how her portrayal of Tonya feels like a fascinating inversion of the charismatic women she’s played in the past, many of whom seem eager to please the men whose orbit they are pulled into — from the demented Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad to the lead in a post-apocalyptic love triangle in Z for Zachariah. As she’s gained prominence, Robbie has been a relatively fun actress to watch — she has just the right amount of charisma to capture your attention, but not much else. Her work hasn’t had much weight to it, and none of her performances have stayed with me. But Tonya has. Going forward, I’m curious to see if Robbie will gravitate toward similar characters, with the type of intensity and mendacity that allows for a fascinating consideration of beauty — particularly as currency and how it shapes a woman’s life.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Robbie is careful to mention how she wanted to “differentiate Tonya in real life and Tonya we were portraying onscreen” out of a fear that trying to perfect a realistic representation would leave her performance feeling “confined.” Robbie is definitely carving out her own interpretation of the poverty-stricken ethos and victimhood that made Tonya’s story so captivating. Biopics need not be obsessed with truths of action, after all, but emotion. And this is where Robbie excels. Yet when looking at the copious interviews with Tonya both during the height of her career and its downfall, I noticed that Robbie captures something the narrative itself seems hesitant to commit to exploring: Tonya’s relationship to lying.
In watching these interviews, I was struck by the lack of sincerity in her voice whenever she spoke of Kerrigan’s assault, and the lopsided smirk that marks her face during these conversations. Tonya doesn’t flinch when she lies, suggesting she believes she’s the victim in any scenario, so her aggressive stance is warranted. The film may play fast and loose with certain details, but it ultimately comes down on Tonya’s side. Thankfully, as much as Robbie takes creative license in her interpretation of Tonya, she never softens the confrontational nature of the character. Instead, she leans into her caustic psychology. She walks, talks, eats, and skates as if eager for a fight. The only time a fissure appears in her armor in the film is when the older Tonya recalls the feeling she had just after nailing her triple axel in 1991. Her eyes grow wet with tears and she noticeably looks away from the camera. “I proved everyone wrong … I was loved,” she says. Robbie never loses sight of Tonya’s defensiveness, her sense of victimhood, and how anger is a necessary, wholly understandable aspect of all this. Her embodiment of female rage is born out of both an intense animosity toward the rules that confine Tonya’s life, and a desire to be loved nonetheless.
The image of Robbie in the film that haunts me the most is after a performance that leads to a disappointing score, despite her efforts. Clad in a Barbie-pink costume with little finesse or beauty, she hunches on a bench moments after firing her first skating coach, Diane (Julianne Nicholson). Her shoulders rounded, she glares with rancorous energy at no one in particular as if begging for a target. It’s a physical stance that is hideous and weirdly entrancing, communicating with no uncertainty that this is a woman dangling on the edge. This moment is precipitated by my favorite scene in the film, in which Robbie makes a beeline for the judge’s table, skating onto the ice without acknowledging the other skater performing, pleading to know why she was given such a rotten score. When a female judge blithely comments on her inadequacies when it comes to presentation, Robbie lurches toward her with such intensity, I halfway expected her to strangle the woman. Instead, she stops inches from her face and spits out “suck my dick.” In one moment, Robbie balances vulgarity, humor, and hurt, and it’s blistering in its honesty. She plays Tonya Harding as a woman on the edge of a primal scream, and it feels like a glaring mistake when the camera strays too far from her.