I went into this screening with no expectations and came out wondering exactly what I’d seen. I remembered the furore about the figure skater Tonya Harding and her rival Nancy Kerrigan back in 1994 but I was unaware of how it had been covered in the US media. My immediate reaction to the film was that Tonya got a ‘bum rap’ from the authorities, but since the film begins by telling us that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews, I don’t know if this is a reasonable position or not. I will say that Margot Robbie as Tonya gives an amazing performance. Allison Janney as her mother gives the kind of performance you expect from a great character actor.
For anyone who doesn’t know the background to the story, Tonya Harding in the late 1980s was a working-class girl who had shown genuine skating talent from the time she was a toddler and as an older teenager she was clearly a major talent with athleticism and a real drive to succeed. Aged 14 she was 6th in the American Championships in 1985 and a year later 2nd in the Skate America international competition. But from the start Harding felt she was treated unfairly because of her working-class background and for the next eight years she struggled to gain credibility even when she won or was well-placed in major international competitions. In 1994 she was charged, along with her ex-husband, his friend and two hired thugs that they had attacked Harding’s rival Kerrigan. Harding maintained she didn’t know about the physical attack but she confessed to the charge that she subsequently conspired to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. The whole series of events became a tabloid sensation in the US and when Harding was sentenced she received what amounted to a lifetime ban from skating.
Given the coverage at the time, anyone over 40 in America today knows the story and younger audiences must be similarly aware: Wikipedia informs me that there have been several TV documentaries as well as a play and a musical plus references/spoofs in other entertainment media. Why then should you be interested in this new film? The first reason may well be Margot Robbie’s performance. The Australian actor is 5′ 6”. Tonya Harding is 5′ 1″. Robbie is not a look-a-like stand-in but she is convincing in ageing from 15 to 47. Much of the performance requires world-class skating (and Harding was one of the strongest athletic skaters around). The filmmakers (Robbie was also a producer on the film directed by another Australian, Craig Gillespie) managed to use CGI, literally drawing on Harding’s routines, but even so it is a tour de force by Robbie.
The key to the film’s approach is the choice of ‘mockumentary’ and reality TV as an aesthetic mode, so we are offered ‘straight to camera’ comments by the principals as if they were being interviewed today (i.e. Robbie is aged to 47). During the historical narrative, the same principals will also turn to the camera and offer observations on the scene as it is unfolding. Several reviews reference Scorsese’s presentation of Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) and that’s not a bad shout in terms of the use of music and voiceovers. I’m not a fan of reality TV and though I found some scenes amusing, I was also saddened to see a life marked by domestic violence that is played for laughs. I thought that the array of characters were exaggerated grotesques – only then to discover from the photographs at the end in the credits sequence that at least the actors did look like the real players in this biopic. The mockumentary tropes also get in the way of the other genre features which interest me more. I, Tonya is a sports movie of a specific kind. In the Guardian Anne Billson offers a useful piece in which she points out that the film deals with a sport in which women are not competing in a ‘man’s world’ and therefore we can enjoy a different kind of sports narrative. Billson also offers us brief descriptions of several other sports stories with female leads to underpin her argument, including the Drew Barrymore-Ellen Page film Whiplash (US 2014), which would make an interesting comparison for film students.
Ice skating is one of those sports with a relatively ‘niche’ following of devoted fans, but which occasionally produces a celebrity figure with wide appeal. The Winter Olympics is always a high point and this year it was the Canadian ice-dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, three-time gold medallists who wowed a Canadian public who seemingly want the couple to marry. On the same day as I, Tonya‘s release, The Ice King, a documentary about John Curry, the supreme ice-dancer from the 1970s also opened in UK cinemas – unfortunately overshadowed by the American film. Skating fans will no doubt seek it out on DVD or online.
There are several distinct features of skating as a sport. One is difficulty of access and the funding for equipment and training. Entertainment features tend to gloss over this. So, while I, Tonya makes jokes about abuse and the costumes that Tonya and her mother sew at home, it doesn’t represent the very real struggle to compete without adequate funds. The conservative attitudes of the administrators of American skating create another barrier to success. A sport like skating is in one sense linked to equestrian sports in the UK in terms of funding, access and potential class conflict. But in North America they might be linked to geographical isolation and small town communities. I, Tonya is odd in not exploring Harding’s home context in Portland, Oregon. I assumed at first that the Hardings were in the South (and the film was shot almost entirely in Georgia, supported by that state’s film commission). It also misses a trick in not exploring more of Nancy Kerrigan’s background (which may be down to permissions). Kerrigan was also from a working-class background in a small town north of Boston. She wasn’t a privileged skater, though in ideological terms her career success could be seen as the result of ‘hard work’ and ‘family support’ – factors difficult for Tonya Harding to draw on for various reasons.
I, Tonya is a well-made film with some great performances and I was certainly engaged throughout. It does give a sense of the impact of celebrity and tabloid sensationalism as it began to be used on cable TV news in North America, but it misses out on a real story about sport, class and gender. Harding’s life after her conviction could be the basis for a whole new narrative but in I, Tonya it is just a relatively brief coda.
Here is the trailer. It hints at the extensive use of popular songs on the soundtrack, which includes Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’ and Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4′ plus Doris Day and a host of familiar 70s and 80s stuff.