Movie Blog Post: I, TONYA

Sunday, January 7, 2018

I, Tonya film discussion

Tinsel & Tine Welcomes Back Guest Blogger Terri L. Heard

Smashdance: ‘I, Tonya’ Revisits the

Crash-and-burn Celebrity of

Figure Skater Tonya Harding

by Terri L. Heard

At the climax of the film I, TONYA, Margot Robbie, starring as infamous figure skater Tonya Harding, graces us with a rictus grin - both horrifying and heartbreaking - as she applies her makeup before taking to the ice at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Staring at her, you can’t help but think of Glenn Close’s disgraced Madame Merteuil at the end of Dangerous Liaisons or the late Kurt Cobain’s psychotic grin at the end of his video for the song Smells Like Teen Spirit. All three scenes seem to depict a psychic shattering which it's easy to believe couldn’t have been too far from the truth of Harding’s internal experience at that moment. Before that night was over, she would see her once promising - even electrifying - figure skating career crash and burn in front of the whole world.

The Ladies Figure Skating free skate program at the 1994 Winter Olympics still remains one of the most watched television programs in history. Estimates put the TV viewing audience at over 100 million, placing that broadcast ahead of everything except the last episode of M*A*S*H, Dallas' "Who Shot JR?" episode, part 8 of the original Roots, and two Super Bowls. And Tonya Harding remains one of the most notorious figures in modern sports history - on a par with OJ Simpson. Like Simpson, a crime and the investigation that followed catapulted Harding from mere celebrity into notoriety. In 1994, Harding’s then-husband Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan), his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), and Eckhardt’s associate Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) were convicted of conspiring to and attacking figure skater and Harding rival Nancy Kerrigan. According to court records, Gillooly and Eckhardt planned the assault and Stant carried it out.

During a skating practice in Detroit, Stant hit Kerrigan with a collapsible police baton, deeply bruising the muscle and ligaments above her knee. The assault was the conspirators' attempt to clear the field for Harding. With Kerrigan unable to compete, Harding did win the 1994 US National Championship. But Harding was later named a person of interest in the criminal investigation. And although the US Figure Skating Association (after being sued by Harding’s attorney) and the US Olympic Committee allowed her to skate at Lillehammer, she was eventually convicted of conspiring to hinder prosecution of a crime after the fact. The USFSA stripped her of her 1994 national title, expelled her from the organization, and banned her from it for life. It was figure skating's equivalent of a professional death sentence.

Clearly, Robbie means to channel the anguish Harding must have felt before coming face to face with her fate. And she succeeds in this brash, rowdy and rollicking film that traces Harding’s unlikely rise and, apparently inevitable, fall as a champion athlete. How you see this story depends on whether you cheered for Kerrigan - who rallied spectacularly to an Olympic silver medal placement and lucrative endorsement deals - or for Harding who placed 8th and later was given three years of probation, sentenced to 500 hours of community service, and slapped with a $100,000-plus fine. (Full disclosure: I was old enough to watch the whole saga in real time from the news reports of Kerrigan's knee-whacking to Harding's disappointing skate at Lillehammer; I was cheering for Harding.)

Margo Robbie Learns to Skate for I, Tonya movie

Flashdance becomes smashdance

This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. On paper, Harding had everything she needed to be a real-life, rural, sports-themed update of the film "Flashdance".

She had the gritty, working-class background of no money and dirty, backbreaking jobs. She was raised in rugged Clackamas County, Oregon, in the vicinity of Portland, then a distressed industrial city rather than today's haven of hipness. Her mother worked as a waitress. Her father taught her to hunt, shoot, fish, and strip a car engine. The adult Harding worked a drill press at a hardware store among several other dead-end jobs.

She had the standout skating talent. She is the first American woman to successfully land a triple axel - the sport’s hardest jump for women - in competition. To this day, over 20 years later, while male figure skaters have moved on to routinely completing quadruple axels, only six women have mastered the triple axel.

Most of all, she had the one big chance that could have catapulted her into the social and financial safety of Olympic gold medal celebrity and, presumably, a pile of money-making endorsements. She could have been America's sweetheart. Unfortunately, there was a whole other set of unsavory elements around Harding that turned this potential Cinderella tale into a tragicomedy. And the whack on Kerrigan's knee transformed Harding's story from Flashdance to smashdance.

The movie explores these destructive elements with gusto. Before tackling this unruly story, screenwriter Steven Rogers interviewed Harding, Gillooly, and Eckhardt. The location of Harding's mother was unknown at the time. Because the principal players' accounts were so contradictory, Rogers has said he treated this fictionalized version of Harding's life as a documentary. The film presents multiple perspectives in all their messy, hilarious, and horrifying glory and lets the audience distill the truth.

The result is a funhouse ride/horror show anchored by Robbie's bravura performance as the film traces Harding's life from childhood to the Lillehammer games and their aftermath. Robbie's ballsy and bruised (literally and figuratively) Tonya endures a childhood darkened by her father's abandonment and her hard-edged mother's alleged alcoholism and abuse. In one horrifyingly hilarious scene, LaVona (played with deliciously dry wit by Allison Janney) nonchalantly kicks her pre-teen daughter out of a chair. In another, LaVona ends an argument by throwing a knife at Harding that - oops! - manages to land in Harding's arm. Harding's mother denies Tonya's allegations of abuse and alcoholism.

At 15, Harding drops out of high school (she did eventually earn her GED) and at 19 escapes her mother's tough rule by marrying Gillooly. Wedded bliss quickly gives way to chronic physical assaults from Gillooly in an alternately volcanic and vulnerable performance by Stan. Gillooly, who has since changed his name, denies Harding's domestic abuse allegations. To accommodate the clashing versions, Rogers' screenplay doesn't hesitate to break the fourth wall as in one scene where Harding fires a shotgun at a fleeing Gillooly then stops, faces the camera, and delivers a deadpan "I never did this."

The film is wildly entertaining and the slickly shot ice skating sequences are a standout. Robbie trained for months to gain competence on the ice and turned to a stunt double for the tougher jump sequences. However, as Robbie explained during one press junket, they still had to CGI the triple axel because they couldn't find a female skater who could do it. Again, only six other women have successfully landed the triple axel in competition since Harding, so there was no stunt person who could sub in. That's how good Harding was and that's what the skating world lost in this whole debacle.

I, Tonya Movie Review Tonya Harding with Nancy Kerrigan

She could've been a contender - couldn't she?

However, it's not clear that the official skating world feels the loss. The skating establishment seems to have always had an ambivalent relationship with Harding. It's an expensive sport that is often accused of being elitist. Skates, rink time, skating lessons, private coaching all add up, creating barriers for athletes from Harding's economic strata. In addition, the quasi-unspoken rules of skating further work against the cash-strapped.

The movie conveys this beautifully as Harding's coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) frequently swans into the rink in her full length fur coat. Of course, that coat is way beyond the Hardings' means - until the film cuts to a scene of Harding's father, still at home at this point, skinning rabbits, followed by a shot of pre-teen Tonya walking into the rink wearing her own rag-tag version of a rabbit fur wrap. It's simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. As a teen and an adult, Harding was frequently forced to sew and bedazzle her own skating costumes due to lack of money. And in a sport that never officially states it is, but seems to function as if it is, a beauty pageant on ice, the judges duly marked Harding down for her homespun look.

Watching Harding battle back and forth with skating judges and officials who gave her the technical points that were her due but lowered her overall standing with low artistic impression scores makes you start to wonder what the hell is going on. Just how rigged is this system? Are we looking at a sport or a charm contest? At one point, Harding skates up to the judges after yet another low artistic score and demands to know what she has to do to catch a break before telling them to "suck my d---!" Harding may not have said those words in real life but she did skate up to the judges at one point and demand an explanation. The nitpicking the judges did may seem to be trivial but they had powerful real life effects for Harding.

The most fateful impact is depicted during a chilling parking lot scene when Harding catches up to a skating official during the period she is training for the 1994 Winter Olympics. The stakes are sky high for her. It's the first Olympics after a schedule change that set the next winter games for 1994 instead of 1996. Harding knows she's gotten a lucky break to try to win that gold medal again so this time she toes the line. The old rebellious Tonya, who smashed skating conventions with her homemade outfits that showed too much skin and skating routines set to ZZ Top and Tone-Loc, becomes the new compliant Tonya. She wears better quality, less risqué costumes and skates to genteel selections from the Jurassic Park soundtrack. In the parking lot, she asks, this time respectfully, what she needs to do to improve the judges' image of her. The official tells Harding, now divorced from Gillooly, that they want to see a "wholesome family image" from her, to which she plaintively replies "I don't have a wholesome family." Onscreen, Harding interprets the official's words to mean she should reunite with Gillooly to improve her image, which she does. In real life, Harding has allegedly claimed that a skating official actually told her to reunite with Gillooly. This has not been confirmed. Whatever the truth is, both onscreen and off, Harding reunited with Gillooly and the die was cast for the destruction of her career.

Yet in light of all the barriers she faced when she was with Gillooly, it's not entirely clear she would have gotten the artistic score she needed to win the gold anyway. Yes, she did win the 1991 US National Championship and retains the title despite being stripped of her 1994 title. Yes, they did send her to the 1994 Olympics. However, although attractive and even photogenic, Harding never had the lithe, swanlike limbs and movements of the judges' preferred skaters - like Nancy Kerrigan and 1994 Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul. In fact, it was Baiul's performance to music from the ballet Swan Lake that knocked American favorite Nancy Kerrigan down to a silver medal finish. If even the elegant, long-limbed ladylike Kerrigan couldn't convince the judges to give her the gold, it's hard to believe Harding could. Harding had a powerful body. She had an athlete's body - in a sport where apparently that wasn't enough. She was never going to be a fluttering flower on the ice. She was going kick your ass all over it. If she were a man or in another sport, her attitude might have gotten a better reception.
Terri Heard has been a writer and editor for TV Guide, for whom she’s interviewed Chris Rock, Chaka Khan, Christina Aguilera and more. Based in Philadelphia, she’s currently working on her first novel, Dirty Lens and has started her own TLHeardblog.

T & T's LAMB (movie bloggers association) Score: 4 outta 5
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