Written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, the movie I, Tonya was both popular with audiences and acclaimed by critics. Grossing over $50 million worldwide, the movie was praised by Roger Ebert as “one of the year’s best films.”
Concept and Plot
Steven Rogers conceived of the film as a “mockumentary.” It would imitate documentary style but its primary aim was to entertain. It would take liberties with both documentary form and with the material itself; in other words, not everything you see in the movie actually happened.
Rogers started by (separately) interviewing Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly. He was particularly intrigued by the very different memories the two people had of the same events, especially those surrounding the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. The idea of presenting the two different viewpoints interchangingly took root in his mind, and he based the screenplay on this principle. He allows both Tonya and Jeff to “narrate” as events play out on screen as they remember them.
The film starts with a presentation of Tonya’s difficult childhood. (In the course of the film, three actresses portray Tonya: Maizie Smith is Tonya as a little girl; Mckenna Grace, as a teenager, and Margot Robbie, as a young adult.) The first part of the film focuses on the harsh parenting provided by Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden, who is played by Allison Janney. Golden/Janney does everything she can to further Tonya’s career as a skater. But she has no loving or nurturing instincts. She constantly belittles and often physically abuses Tonya without even the slightest sense of doing anything wrong.
Tonya’s great skating talent is obvious to everyone as she grows up. Her lower-class mannerisms and homemade clothes, however, do not fit in to the world of figure skating, which is dominated by well-mannered girls from well off families.
Tonya’s life takes a tragic turn at age 15 when she meets 18 year old Jeff Gillooly (portrayed by Sebastian Stan). Gillooly/Stan at first appears to have a certain goofy charm. As the relationship progresses, however, his controlling, abusive side and his lack of common decency soon emerge. It becomes obvious that no good will come of this relationship.
Knowing that Nancy Kerrigan is Tonya’s main skating rival, Gillooly ponders how best to neutralize her threat. He is assisted by his sleazy pal Shawn Eckhardt (played by Paul Walter Hauser), a malevolent but bumbling buffoon who, absurdly, imagines himself a James Bond-like “agent.” Gillooly and Eckhardt first dream up a plot to send death threats to Kerrigan but soon escalate to a plan for physical attack.
Eckhardt’s assaults Kerrigan after a practice session and injures her leg. His clumsy attempt to keep his identity a secret fails and he is taken into police custody. He reveals that he was hired by Gillooly, who is also arrested. Seeking to appear cooperative and hoping to reduce their own sentences, the two implicate Tonya.
Arguably the most poignant scene in the film is when Tonya appears before an unsympathetic judge. Tonya begs to be sentenced to prison time rather than being barred from doing the one thing that gives her life meaning, skating. The judge refuses. Tonya’s only real joy in life is permanently taken away from her. Jeff Gillooly does ultimately admit to having wrecked Tonya’s promising career. But by then, of course, it is too late.
Cast and Performance
Many reviewers have credited Margot Robbie, portrayer of Tonya, with the best performance of her career. Robbie is particularly successful at showing both Tonya’s vulnerability in the face of Gillooly’s worsening abuse and her determination to succeed against all odds.
The best performance, however, is doubtlessly Allison Janney’s portrayal of LaVona Golden. Janney somehow manages to exaggerate the real Golden’s redneck persona, quirky habits, and loveless viciousness to a point that is so over-the-top that they no longer feel improbable. For this stellar performance, Janney won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Golden Globes, where Tonya appeared alongside her.
Here is a complete list of the cast:
|Julianne Nicholson||Diane Rawlinson|
|Paul Walter Hauser||Shawn|
|Bobby Cannavale||Martin Maddox|
|Bojana Novakovic||Dody Teachman|
|Caitlin Carver||Nancy Kerrigan|
|Maizie Smith||Tonya as little girl|
|Mckenna Grace||Tonya as young teenager|
|Suehyla El-Attar||Skater Mom|
|Mea Allen||Snooty Girl|
|Amy Fox||Skating Judge|
|Joshua Mikel||Heckling Spectator|
|Lynne Ashe||Shawn’s Mother|
|Steve Wedan||Shawn’s Father|
|Brandon O’Dell||Policeman #1|
|David Allen Grindstaff||USFS Judge|
|Daniel Thomas May||Sheriff|
|Anthony Reynolds||Derrick Smith|
|Ricky Russert||Shane Stant|
|Al Bianchi||Sports Bar Manager|
|Miles Mussenden||Policeman #2|
|Annie Livingston||6 Year Old Girl|
|Jan Harrelson||FBI Agent #1|
|Luray Cooper||FBI Agent #2|
|Dan Triandiflou||Bob Rawlinson|
|Lisa Kaye Kinsler||Lillehammer Skating Judge|
|Alphie Hyorth||Judge Londer|
|Sean Goulding||Restaurant Employee|
|Little Man||LaVona’s Sixth Husband|
The movie received overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Writing in the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan observed that
“I, Tonya” is funny when it wants to be, poignant when it needs to be and surprisingly effective in harnessing these deeper themes to a character who might otherwise be dismissed as a lightweight laughingstock.
He goes on to praise Margot Robbie for being
… able to find — and to show us — the broken pieces of Tonya’s damaged soul, with a kind of fierce vulnerability that makes her not just sympathetic but, at times, heartbreaking.
But, he says
… it is Janney who steals every scene she’s in, as LaVona, a harridan whose noodging goes well beyond tough love. At one point, LaVona throws a paring knife into her daughter’s arm. In another, she bribes a spectator at one of Tonya’s competitions to heckle the young athlete, believing that her daughter will skate better if she is under pressure. In an extreme example of this psychological torture, a very young Tonya is forced to urinate on the ice after her mother won’t let her take a bathroom break. “Skate wet,” LaVona tells her, coldly.
Similarly, in Empire, Helen O’Hara praises Robbie as being able to convincingly portray Tonya as
a woman who wasn’t initially given a choice about skating but who absorbed her mother’s resolve to win along the way. It’s a vanity-free performance under a series of horror wigs, capped by a desperate grin more disturbing than the one she wore as Harley Quinn.
Like Sullivan, O’Hara sees this stellar performance as being upstaged by Janney’s:
Yet Robbie’s more than matched by Janney, uncompromising as she claims to have acted out of love. Golden is flamboyant, with her fur coat, a bird on her shoulder and an oxygen line snaking across her face after a lifetime of smoking, but also small, sad and bitter after her predictions of disaster come true. Even by Janney’s standards it’s an unforgettable performance (deservedly awarded a Golden Globe).
I, Tonya and the real Tonya Harding
Tonya was not heavily involved in the making of I, Tonya.
At the beginning of the project, Steven Rogers did interview her extensively. After, that, he only occasionally consulted her. The movie was, after all, “his” project. He made no attempt to make sure details.
Tonya only received $1,500 and a small portion of the ongoing profits from the film for her help.
Yet it would not be an exaggeration to state that I, Tonya was a turning point in Tonya’s life. She had struggled in obscurity to survive literally for decades; when she was mentioned in public, it was usually as the butt of a joke. Now, for the first time since her early twenties, she was not only in the public eye again, but was being portrayed sympathetically.
Not long after I, Tonya, Tonya was invited to perform on Dancing With The Stars. It’s safe to say that if it weren’t for the movie, this never would have happened.
Yes, there are still haters and detractors. But Tonya hopes to build on the new fan base that was created through I, Tonya, and to become known now, decades after her fall from grace, as the woman she really is.