“I never apologized for growing up a redneck, which is what I am,” says Margot Robbie as figure skater Tonya Harding near the start of the film I, Tonya. She’s sitting in a modest kitchen, cigarette in hand, proudly wearing cowboy boots and an attitude. Staring into the camera in (faux) documentary style—she continues, “I was the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel. So eff em!”
Watch: Margot Robbie Brought Tonya Harding to the L.A. Premiere of I, Tonya
Harding’s story is a stranger-than-fiction saga that rocked the sports world back in 1994 and the film, opening this Friday, Dec. 8, is a tongue-in-cheek look at that infamous incident, what led up to it, and its aftermath. The movie is brilliantly done, using on-camera interviews with the main players in the present, interspersed with flashbacks. Sometimes the actors even preface a flashback by saying things like “this next part is not true,” adding to the he said/she said feel of the whole ordeal.
The performances are Oscar caliber—especially Allison Janney’s as Harding’s abusive mother, LaVona Golden, and Robbie’s, as the gum-smacking, wise-cracking athlete herself.
For those who aren’t familiar with this scandal, Harding, a U.S. champion skater headed for her second Olympics, basically became a tabloid punch line when her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan) and her body guard Shawn Eckhardt (played by Paul Walter Hauser), conspired to hire some goons to whack her main competitor—America’s skating darling Nancy Kerrigan—in the knee.
It was shocking stuff, especially for a sport perceived to be so, well, ladylike. The plot was woefully ill-conceived and Gillooly, Eckhardt, the guy who committed the actual crime, and the getaway driver all got jail time, but Harding claimed to know nothing about the scheme.
She only plead guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers so she never served time. Instead, she was ordered to serve community service and pay a large fine, and, most significantly, was banned from pro skating for life. Her career was ruined (she later tried her hand at boxing) and for years she was one of the most hated women in America. Robbie plays Harding, for the most part sympathetically.
We learn that her life was never easy. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, her mom LaVona pushed her to the limits, degrading and even hitting her. They were also poor, and while other skaters had fancy outfits, Harding wore gaudy costumes (think too many sequins and bows) sewn by LaVona and later herself. When she couldn’t afford a fur coat, she and her dad went rabbit hunting and he made her one from their skins.
We find ourselves rooting for this rough-around-the-edges outsider as she rebels against the system, skating to heavy metal and sporting nails with chipped blue polish. We are on her side as she eschews the ice princess ideal, fighting against the judges who dock her points for her appearance.
The stellar performance here, though, is Janney’s. With her harsh brunette bowl cut, oversized glasses, scowling expression, and spewing expletives in every scene, Janney is nothing short of riveting. She makes Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest look like Mrs. Clause.
In one scene, a very young Harding has an accident on the ice rink after LaVona refuses to let her stop practicing to go to the bathroom—for Harding it’s devastating. For LaVona, it’s an annoying inconvenience, not a moment for motherly empathy.
She’s a momager monster who wages psychological and physical warfare on her daughter in her zealous effort to turn her into a star. A weary waitress with nothing much else in her life besides her cigarettes and her daughter, she shoves and slaps her, demeans her, and calls her names, all while forcing her to just keep skating.
“You skated like a graceless bull dyke,” she admonishes Harding in one scene. “You weren’t even f—ing trying” Her excuse? She claims her tough love abuse is what turned Harding into a champion. “She skated better when she was enraged,” Lavona explains matter-of-factly in one of her talking-to-the camera moments.
Continuing the abuse was Harding’s husband Gillooly. They married when Harding just 19, and according to the film’s portrayal, he abused her physically and verbally—once even shooting her—and while she sometimes fought back, she often took it as her due. His ultimate scheme—to handicap her skating nemesis—was most likely a ploy to win her back (the two were divorced at the time), which, of course, woefully backfired.
All in all, this is a classic tragicomedy, and we’re never quite sure which emotion we’re supposed to embrace the most. That is until the end when Robbie as Harding looks into the camera and chastises us, the audience, for laughing.
I didn’t feel guilty for laughing, though. For me, the satire and the humor are what made this film irresistible.