Film Reviews

I, TONYA

By • Dec 21st, 2017 •

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A stunning performance by Robbie that should gain her a Best Actress nomination. Who could beat Janney’s fearless, cruel performance in the Best Supporting category?

Midori Ito was the first woman to complete the triple Axel in 1988. In women’s figure skating competitions, it’s the triple-triple combo, introduced more than 30 years ago, that is the make-or-break move for today’s ladies singles skaters. Those who can’t do it have virtually no shot at a medal.*

Harding was the first American female to do the triple Axel in the U.S. Championships in 1991, winning the title.

Harding accomplished the triple Axel again that same year at the 1991 World Championships, but she finished second to Kristi Yamaguchi. Harding is in the record books for also being the first woman to successfully execute two triple Axels in a single competition and the first to complete a triple Axel in combination with a double toe loop.

Tonya Harding is not remembered for these accomplishments.

Regardless of Harding’s place in women’s figure skating, she is – as you know – most remembered for her being implicated in the absurd attack on her teammate and competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, in 1994.

I, TONYA is sensational. Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding has taken her career in her own hands (by being one of the producers) and delivers a stunning performance as the controversial and generally unlikable professional figure skater.

In 2016, 14-year-old Rika Kihira jumped into the record books in a big way at the Junior Grand Prix in Slovenia with a triple Axel and went on to hit eight triple jumps. Kihira’s eight clean triple jumps made her the first woman to do that at any level of competition.

The level of Kihira’s accomplishment cannot be overstated. In landing the triple Axel, she became just the eighth woman and fourth Japanese female ever to accomplish the feat in competition.**

I, TONYA is directed by Craig Gillespie with a strong hand offering the story – Harding’s version – with humor and absurdity but with a darker subtext. No matter what the media created in representing Harding, Gillespie manages to sneak in sympathy for her. Harding was the underdog without grace and stature with home-made costumes and trailer park hair. She wasn’t an etheric creature like Peggy Fleming gliding across the ice with chiffon floating behind her. Harding was too brash, too thick-bodied and always maniacally smiling. She was not the demure, passively beautiful skating princess for pre-teen girls to emulate.

Written by Steven Rogers, I, TONYA begins with the present-day Tonya (heavier and still smoking) relating her side of the story to us. And what a story it is in the hands of Gillespie. Gleamed from interviews re-created here, Tonya, her ridiculed ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), her supposed bodyguard/special terrorist advisor Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), and finally, her deliciously evil mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) all participate in telling the events from their point of view.

Its Janney who nearly steals the movie. She is revelatory! Screenwriter Rogers does an amazing job of giving Janney the ability to explain herself. And when she does, we are with her. She did the most heroic thing a mother could do, she sacrificed herself to be hated by her daughter. She forced Tonya to be a famous, medaled skater. She also beat Tonya and was a hard-as-nails bitch. Janney is irresistible. And the bird kept pecking at her face!

Tonya starts at the beginning, telling us what her childhood was like. LaVona bellowed her way into getting Rawlinson as Tonya’s coach.She worked long hours as a waitress. She went to every practice. She dominated Tonya. She was brutal, coarse and nasty. She never showed Tonya any love. LaVona let Tonya know the sacrifices she made. If they had had a dog, she would have kicked it daily.

Finally, Tonya breaks free of LaVona by marrying Jeff. Like LaVona, he beats Tonya often. But Tonya is a tough cookie in her own right. She is no shrinking violet. When she fails to make winning points, she skates over to the judges and demands an explanation. Finally, one of the judges tells her what her coach has been telling her  – she’s not a good representative of figure skating. Her costumes are all wrong, she has no family to trot out to the media and she is dirt poor.

Tonya doesn’t change a thing except for divorce Jeff. But Jeff’s life is defined by being Tonya’s husband. He ignores the divorce and is still breaking into her apartment and beating  her.

Jeff’s buddy Shawn, who considers that his role as unpaid “bodyguard” really means he is the manipulator, behind the scenes king-maker and all-around man to be feared, concocts the scheme to insure Tonya wins a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. But first, Tonya and her perceived rival, Nancy Kerrigan, must compete at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit for a spot on the team.

Shawn, perhaps seeing himself as James Bonds “M”, gets Jeff to pay his two idiot friends Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) and Derrick Smith (Anthony Reynolds) to attack Kerrigan.

Now, according to Tonya, she did not know that an attack was planned. Maybe the guys were just going to…I don’t know how Tonya explained writing down Kerrigan’s practice sessions. Jeff “ratted her out.” She was very involved.

Stant stumbled backstage and hit Kerrigan with an iron bar. Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the national competition. Harding won the event and both of them made the U.S. Olympic team. The rest is history.***

The casting by Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu deserves praise. At the end of the movie, as audiences have come to expect in movies about real people, we see that the supporting cast are near-identical to the actors and actresses on the screen.

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.

Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com.

*In 2016, 14-year-old Rika Kihira jumped into the record books in a big way at the Junior Grand Prix in Slovenia with a triple Axel and went on to hit eight triple jumps. Kihira’s eight clean triple jumps made her the first woman to do that at any level of competition. The level of Kihira’s accomplishment can’t be overstated. In landing the triple Axel, she became just the eighth woman and fourth Japanese female ever to accomplish the feat in competition.

**A quad Axel entails an extra half turn over its other quad peers and a forward edge takeoff, which greatly ups the difficulty.

***Harding finished eighth in Lillehammer, while Kerrigan, by then fully recovered from the injury, won the silver medal behind  Oksana Baiul from Ukraine. Harding was fined and thrown out of skating for life and in 1994, wrestled a bear. (No, that was some other disgraced altehle.) Not mentioned in the Tonya Harding wrap-up the celebrity sex tape, an explicit “wedding video” that showed Harding having sex with her then-husband, Jeff Gillooly. They sold it together to Penthouse magazine, for an advance of $200,000 each plus royalties.

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