The Winter Olympics are dominating television right now, which meant, I thought, it was a perfect time to see I, Tonya. I think pretty much everyone knows the basic contours of the Tonya Harding story. She was an ice skater, the first woman in the world to successfully land, in competition, a triple Axel. She was also a poor woman from a poor family. Her mother was trashy, and swore a lot; so was she. Nor was she an elegant skater. She was an athlete, a jumper, a concentrated ball of fierce energy. And, as such, she received lower scores than other skaters did. But then, just before the Lillehammer Olympics in ’94, when an assailant attacked her main rival for Olympic gold, Nancy Kerrigan. Harding’s ex-husband (and then-boyfriend) Jeff Gillooly was criminally charged with setting the whole thing up, and claimed Harding was complicit. Although she was able to compete in Lillehammer, the ‘incident’ ended her skating career.
That’s the broad outline; I, Tonya, rather unreliably, provides the details. Harding (superbly played by Margot Robbie) claims that both her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) and Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) physically abused her. Both characters, in the movie, deny it. (The film is told as a lengthy flashback, intercut with scenes in which several of the characters directly address the camera). Gillooly claims that Tonya knew what was going on, but that he did not intend for Kerrigan to be assaulted; that the physical attack was entirely the doing of his friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who used his money to hire a hit person, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert). The film doesn’t really resolve any of these disputes, and we’re never sure how much we should trust Gillooly. It generally depicts events from Tonya’s perspective, and because we can see the events taking place, we mostly believe her. I doubt anyone seeing the film would doubt, for example, that Gillooly beat her up, despite his denials, because we see him doing it. Those scenes are well-shot, well-acted, brutal, tough to watch. We believe them. So while the film purports to be agnostic about the truth or falsehood of those details, the director Craig Gillespie, stacks the deck. We believe what we see.
Ice skating is something of a hybrid, half sport, half art form, and some top skaters have the balletic grace of dancers. (I don’t, in any way, diminish what extraordinary athletes top skaters really are; just that athletic skill is only one judging criterion). This is a film about class and gender construction as much as it’s about skating, or history. Tonya Harding is depicted as white trash, as a poor, uneducated, foul-mouthed, abused woman from a white trash background. (I love the various crappy houses Harding and Gillooly live in, along with Eckhardt and Golden. At one point, visiting the home of her coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), she remarks about a house ‘with a living room!’ Told by a skating judge that she needs to wear a fur coat to the rink like the other girls do, Harding shoots a bunch of rabbits, skins ’em, and sews herself a rabbit-skin coat. (Harding insists that that really happened).
She’s trashy, common, tacky, tawdry. Those are all words denoting social class, and the film makes a point of showing how class-conscious the skating world is. Tonya’s as welcome there as a fart in church. And it hurts her, of course, because skating is also a judged sport. She’s an astonishing athlete, and she thinks that should correlate with victory. And of course, to some degree it does. She did make two Olympic teams, she did win national championships. But she feels it, the way her accomplishments are diminished by her unconventional (for skating) unbringing. (I loved the early scenes in which we see eight-year old Tonya, dragged to practices and tournaments by her chain-smoking, foul-mouthed mother, and I loved young McKenna Grace’s performance as the young Tonya. What a fine child actress! She was great in Gifted too.) The movie’s music emphasizes class as well. It’s all hard-core classic rock, Heart and Bad Company and Laura Brannigan and Siouxie and the Banshees. It’s the kind of music Tonya grew up on, and loved. And it’s, sniff, not quite the thing for ever-so-classy figure skating.
It’s not just that Tonya is lower-class. That correlates directly to the way in which skating constructs gender. Skaters are princesses, demurely (whisper it) sexy, in an unthreatening way. Figure skating hides the amazing dexterity and skill of its performers. They have to dance, too, and just as we never are meant to comment on, or even notice, the extraordinary coordination it takes for a ballerina to dance en pointe. In both cases, pure beauty, is divorced from or at least distanced from sweaty, painful effort. (While also being as hard a thing, physically, it’s possible to imagine human beings doing). By the same token, Tonya’s calling card was her triple Axel. She did a tougher jump than anyone else even tried, and she landed it, and she threw in some triple flips and triple salchows while she was at it, and if you found the performance lacking in artistry, f-you.
It’s hard not to like her, honestly. It’s hard not to root for her. But the glory of Margot Robbie’s performance is that she’s completely unafraid to show us Tonya’s less likable features. (Best scene in the movie, best-acted, best lit, is a locker room scene where we see put on some blush. Totally amazing.) The Gillooly plan (according to the film) was to intimidate Nancy Kerrigan, to send her a death threat (like the ones Tonya received), to throw her off her game, but not to physically harm her. Tonya seems fine with psychological warfare, to the extent that she even thinks about it. She’s self-absorbed like any great athlete can be, entirely focused on the moment, on tonight’s performance. She can be whiny and she can be selfish and she can be massively insecure. And she doesn’t just drop F-bombs; she relishes them.
In Stan’s performance, Gillooly comes across as a nice guy, sincere, a good salesman, reasonably intelligent, devoted to the one great love of his life; a pretty good partner for her, really, when he’s not beating her up. (If he did.) (He totally did.) And that becomes part of the secret of Tonya. She was badly, physically, constantly, unremittingly abused. Her mother beat her, and then her husband took over the job. She responded by becoming one of the great athletes of her generation. It’s impossible not to admire that about her, while also being horrified and appalled on her behalf.
Incredibly, this horrific story is also, astonishingly, funny. It’s one of the darkest comedies I know, but it is a comedy; there are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, in a horrifying sort of way. A lot of the comedy comes from Hauser, who is absolutely terrific as Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff Gillooly’s incomparably stupid best friend. Eckhardt tells everyone (including a thoroughly unimpressed FBI) that he’s an international espionage expert. (All the while, he lives with his Mom). He knows people. He has ‘guys.’ He’s four steps ahead of everyone, don’t you know? All the while, seriously, there are smarter bricks in the walls of my house.
His astonishing dimness is, believe it or not, exceeded by his idiot friend, Shane Stant. And, again, we’re treated to a small but beautifully creepy and moronic characterization, by Ricky Russert, an actor I had never heard of before. The scene where he whacks Kerrigan is amazing, as he wanders cluelessly around the halls and dressing rooms of a skating rink, slack-jawed but determined. And then he finds her, smashes her leg. And Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) screams in agony. And a funny scene becomes horrifying.
It’s a funny film, in which women are abused, and it never takes their abuse less than completely seriously. That’s a tough balancing act; I cannot applaud Gillespie enough for walking that tightrope. It’s also a seriously intentioned film about unreliable narrators, about the difficulty in discerning truth from a welter of contradictory stories about subjective memories. I admire that too. You feel tremendous sympathy for Tonya Harding. You feel terrible for her, and you want her to overcome the difficulties posed by her class and upbringing and the damage done to her by those who loved her most. And yet, when she gets her just desserts, you can’t help but think, ‘yep, that seems fair.’
But let me do this as well, ask some annoying questions about the film’s depiction of social class in mid-nineties America. I think the film is largely sympathetic to Tonya, and largely unsympathetic to the hoity-toity skating establishment. (With the one exception of Diane Rawlinson. Quietly, Nicholson’s performance helps us see another side. She’s not as flashy as Robbie or Janney, but she’s terrific). Don’t we associate ‘lower class’ with ‘dim-witted?’ Don’t we assume that lower-class people are there because they’re not bright enough to rise? And doesn’t this film perpetuate that, to at least some degree, through its depictions of Eckhardt and Stant?
Maybe. And maybe not quite. As a counter argument, I would point to Eckhardt’s diction. The character speaks fairly intelligently. He uses better grammar than Gillooly, and he has a wider vocabulary. It’s not until the FBI are actually interrogating him that you realize how astoundingly dumb he really is. So, I don’t know.
It’s a lovely film, in its own violent, brutal, profane way. The director takes lots of chances–especially with tone–and they pretty much all pay off. And, Oscar night, I’m rooting for Margot Robbie and for Allison Janney. Disappointed in you, CJ. What a fine performance.