I, Tonya (2017), the Margot Robbie tour-de-force which explores the life of competitive figure skater Tonya Harding, reminded me on several fronts of the classic Goodfellas (1990).
Martin Scorsese’s movie about Italian-American criminals had Ray Liotta playing Henry Hill, a non-Italian kid who wants to be in the mob. We watch Hill from a child hanging around the made guys, through his teenage years and eventual acceptance into their criminal world.
The story is filled with wonderful characters, some eccentric, some appearing normal family men, masking the hideous acts they commit to make a living.
Through much of the film, Liotta’s Hill explains in voice over what is happening and prefaces the nuances of scenes we are about to watch. He is an outsider striving for huge stakes and things go well for a long time.
However, a combination of his own drug abuse, a seriously botched crime by one of his close confreres and the possibility of long jail time, lead him to turn on his colleagues. He finishes in witness protection.
Though I, Tonya explores a vastly different world, I felt Goodfellas was its model.
Margot Robbie plays the main character, risen from low beginnings to be “the second most famous person in America” (or was it the world?). However, she earns this notoriety through foul means rather than fair.
The movie gives her a fair break as to her involvement in the knee capping of her main rival Nancy Kerrigan, six months out from the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Harding is culpable as she knew there was to be some sort of mind game played against Kerrigan but appeared to have no knowledge that the”boobs” involved in this would take their actions far higher by bashing the other skater’s knee.
This situation had been created by her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastien Stan) and his extraordinarily deluded friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), in reprisal for a death threat sent to Harding. Jeff wants something similar sent to Kerrigan but Shawn (who later admits sending the first death threat in some elaborate manoeuvre to eventually advantage the recipient) extends this to physical assault.
How has Harding reached this point? Again, like Goodfellas, it is a case of an awful story about awful people (thank you Bill McDonald). She has grown up in very humble circumstances in Portland, Oregon, living with a psychotic, oft-married mother, La Vona (Allison Janney). Skating is Tonya’s only escape. Her mother’s only redeeming feature is that she provides what little she has to let her daughter follow this route from the trailer trash life they lead.
However, the world of women’s figure skating is unforgiving. Bad hair and poor taste/home-sewn outfits don’t sit well with the judging panels at these events. They want their world populated by princesses, not athletic performers who insist on wearing blue nail polish and skating to heavy metal accompaniment.
Harding works through this and shows a remarkable tolerance given the injustices she experiences. In Tonya Harding, The Price of Gold, a documentary SBS aired last Sunday, the real Harding came across as a slightly deluded athlete who embraced any positive crowd or media attention with some grace, despite having been brought up to distrust and dislike everything in her vicinity. Even when confronted with the horror of being accused of attacking Kerrigan, she was polite and mostly calm with the jackal-like media coverage.
To escape La Vona, Harding marries Jeff (“you fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb” her mother tells her). He turns out to be as violent as Mum and the two exist rather than live as Harding aspires to Olympic glory. The kid never caught a break. While struggling without sponsorship, she has gone from an abusive mother to a wife-beating husband, who has tied himself to her as a means of becoming rich or famous.
But she does have the Triple Axel. This three-spin move done while skating backwards is her signature. She is the only performer with the courage and ability to do it and, when she pulls it off in a major event, the scoring recognition cannot be denied her.
I, Tonya is an American tragedy, reaching its height when, after finally cracking the bogan ceiling and becoming loved, the soon-after bashing of Kerrigan turned Harding into a pariah. Even the normally very careful Barack Obama reviled her name during a presidential election campaign speech. We have to knee cap this problem. We have to do a Tonya Harding to the Nancy Kerrigan of this problem (paraphrased) he said.
Another telling scene, well presented in semi-background by director Craig Gillespie, showed a greater American tragedy just beginning as Harding’s is reaching its zenith. A television news coverage behind one of the main proponents, shows O.J. Simpson being led from his home in handcuffs. Harding’s scandal is one thing but here it is being taken to the stratosphere. This isn’t figure skating, this is NFL; not a poor person who didn’t quite make it but a self-made man who had everything; not a hard-to love, white trash woman but a much-adored and wealthy black man; not a bashing but vicious murder. America and sport would never be the same.
Gillespie has crafted a good movie about “the incident” and the skating scenes are brilliantly done. You believe Robbie is doing the skating. Unlike horse riding or ballroom dancing, this isn’t a skill easily picked up by any performer so it’s obvious that editing and cutting had to be in unerring sync.
I don’t think Margot Robbie will ever be the same. She co-produced I, Tonya and is superb. She is well supported, especially by Janney and Hauser, but she didn’t need it. Her position on the A-list is well set.