In the field of women’s figure skating, the name Tonya Harding will undoubtedly remain the most controversial one. Her story and notoriety continue to draw a wide range of emotional views on her legacy. Some find her utterly contemptuous and unworthy of the annals of U.S Women’s Figure Skating history. Others view her career as a tragic fall from grace. Many have come to feel that Tonya’s skill and elegance in skating far outshined the stigma of her personal flaws, social class, rough upbringing, and poor life choices that inevitably led to her down fall.
I, Tonya premiered in 2017 set as a biopic drama and dark comedy. The film is based on a number of interviews of those involved throughout Tonya’s life and takes a narrative/mockumentary approach that constantly breaks the fourth wall. The film explicitly states at the beginning that the following dialogues and interviews are unreliable, thus leaving the audience to determine the truth of Tonya Harding’s story.
The film begins with a young four-year old Tonya being enrolled into a skating class by her mother LaVona Golden (played by Allison Janney). The portrayal of LaVona Golden would go on to earn Allison Janney an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in this role. I must take a moment to say that her acting is amazing in this film as she plays arguably the most detestable, foul-mouthed, cold, cruel, irredeemably loathsome woman to ever appear on film. Next we are introduced to Tonya’s coach, Diane Rawlinson, played by Julianne Nicholson. Diane is hesitant to take on training Tonya because she is so young but sees promise in the young girl due to her dedication and skill.
We see throughout Tonya’s childhood and teenage years that she suffers from non-stop verbal and physical abuse from her mother, who rationalizes that it will make her a better skater. The teenage and adult Tonya is played by Margot Robbie, and I feel this is her best performance to date. Despite her tragic upbringing, Tonya’s skill is unmatched and she becomes one of the top female figure skaters in the country; however, she is constantly denied a top prize, first place finish. Tonya blames this on her “white trash background” and her inability and unwillingness to act the part of a debutante on and off the ice.
One day while practicing, Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan). Tonya and Jeff begin dating and are soon married. Their relationship is almost instantly toxic as Jeff is very physically abusive to Tonya and their marriage grows strained and dysfunctional at best. Tonya’s career improves and she gains notoriety as she become the first U.S female skater to land the Triple Axel in competition. It seems if she will become an Olympic champion, but fate steps in and she fails in the 1992 Winter Olympics. Defeated and depressed, Tonya thinks her days of skating are over, but her former coach Diane returns hoping that she will get in shape and compete in the 1994 Winter Olympics. This brings about the “incident” to which Tonya’s lasting infamy is attributed.
Leading up to the games, Tonya is tied in skill next to her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Noticing this, Jeff enlists the help of his friend Shawn Eckardt (played by Paul Walter Hauser). Shawn is a moronic individual who styles himself as “Tonya’s bodyguard” and brags about being a counter-terrorist expert. Jeff asks Shawn to send out a death threat against Nancy Kerrigan in order to keep her from preforming in the Winter Olympics. Shawn recruits a couple of small-time crooks even dumber than him to carry out “the mission” as he calls it and it goes downhill from there. I feel the film from this point portrays the events leading up to the “incident” in a faithful way showing the numerous contradictory elements of who knew what and who was responsible. The dramatic ending, the indictments and the final perspectives are as thought provoking as they are tragic.
Margot Robbie’s performance in this film is superb, and she was nominated for Best Actress. She seamlessly transitions from an aged, bitter narrator to a young, sympathetic protagonist who can’t catch a break in life. Tonya Harding will always remain a controversial character in the history of U.S Women’s Figure skating, but I do feel that this film did its best to humanize her and help us understand the full scope of the situation and those involved.
I, Tonya is available at the Union University Library. Please note it is rated R for intense language throughout, violence and some sexual situations.