Craig Gillespie’s bitter, funny, wildly entertaining biography of disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding, “I, Tonya,” might be titled “Sympathy for the Devil.” In 1994, Harding became the public’s prime suspect in a physical attack that left a rival skater, Nancy Kerrigan, unable to compete in the national championship. Harding’s eventual punishment, a lifetime ban from Olympic skating, seemed like just deserts.
That’s not quite the version of events we get in “I, Tonya,” which alerts us straight off that we are about to go through the proverbial looking glass. A title card warns us, with a wink, that the film is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who served time for his role in the attack. These are self-serving accounts, of course, but not without their moments of truth. And as they converge and diverge, we get a more sympathetic picture of Harding than many of us would have thought possible.
In fact, “I, Tonya” casts Harding, played by a terrific Margot Robbie, as something approaching a working-class heroine, a kid from a hardscrabble family whose talent and determination elevated her to the most rarefied strata of professional athletics. The problem was, Harding didn’t have the “class” to compete there. In her too-blue eye shadow and pulled-back hair, Harding never seemed to belong on the same ice as American sweethearts like Kerrigan. As one judge tells her in a moment of confidence, “It’s not all about the skating, Tonya.”
“I, Tonya” manages to get us almost completely on Harding’s side. For starters, there’s her bitter and joyless mother, LaVona (played by an unbelievably good Allison Janney), a tough-love type who forgot the love part. Harding’s husband, Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), was an abusive wimp who walloped her around the house and then melted into tears. And everyone will regret ever meeting Gillooly’s inept, delusional friend Shawn Eckhardt (an excellent Paul Walter Hauser).
Then there’s us, the public that reveled in Harding’s downfall. In one of the film’s more serious moments, Robbie’s Harding turns to the camera and addresses us directly. “It was like being abused all over again, only this time by you,” she says. “You’re my attackers, too.”
Disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding is at the center of “I, Tonya,” the biopic that also focuses on her biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Perhaps gaining the most attention is Allison Janney for her chilling turn as Harding’s cold-blooded mother. It’s a performance that put her in some good company of mean screen moms such as the ones in these films.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) — Angela Lansbury is pure evil as a political wife who will stop at nothing to get her husband into the White House. That includes using her brainwashed son (Laurence Harvey) to assassinate anyone standing in the way.
CARRIE (1976) — Piper Laurie earned an Oscar nomination for her nasty turn as a Bible-thumping wacko whose idea of discipline is to lock her daughter, Carrie (Sissy Spacek), in the closet. No wonder Carrie has that meltdown at the prom.
MOMMIE DEAREST (1981) — Poor Joan Crawford may be remembered more for Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top, wire-hanger-loathing characterization of the former movie queen than for any of her screen performances.
THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN (1987) — Who could blame Danny DeVito for wanting Billy Crystal to bump off his dragon of a mother (Oscar nominee Anne Ramsey) in this darkly comic takeoff on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.”
— Daniel Bubbeo