Tonya Harding is still explaining herself.
“It feels like she can’t help it,” actress Margot Robbie said of the notorious figure skater, “because no one would listen. It didn’t matter how many times she said, ‘I didn’t do this,’ ‘I didn’t feel this way,’ ‘I had nothing against her.’ No one wanted to hear that. They kept writing what people wanted to hear.
“The Tonya I met has never had her story told,” Robbie added.
That changes Friday with the release of “I, Tonya,” in which Robbie plays the Portland, Oregon, athlete whose Olympic dreams — and fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee — took a beating en route to the Lillihammer Games of 1994. What exactly happened among Harding, Kerrigan and Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), may never be known — and that’s something reflected in the original screenplay by Steven Rogers, where the point of view is constantly changing.
What really went on? Did Tonya know Jeff was going to mastermind the attack on her supposed Olympic rival? Did Jeff in fact mastermind it at all?
“Once I knew how I was going to tell the story, I didn’t care,” said Rogers. “I really didn’t. I just wanted to get everybody’s point of view. What was interesting to me was what people tell themselves, in order to live with themselves.”
Based on what the film’s opening title calls “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with its subject and her infamous husband, “I Tonya” is mostly about the relationship between Harding and Gillooly, both of whom grew up poor in Portland, and whose marriage reflected the violence of their upbringings. As played by Allison Janney in what will probably be a career-defining role, Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden, is one of moviedom’s great monsters, one so abusive of her daughter it’s almost funny. Almost.
“Dancing between the tones in this movie was going to be a really hard thing to pull off,” said Robbie, probably best known for playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and for the bubble-bath economics lecture she delivered in “The Big Short.” She was also one of “I, Tonya’s” producers. “We had a list of 150 directors looking for someone who could do it.”
“It was a raffle,” joked Craig Gillespie, whose “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007) was another film that had to balance pathos, comedy and social criticism. “The way I like to approach characters is I want to empathize with them, not make fun of them. Some of the ‘I, Tonya’ scenes are the subjects’ verbatim account of what happened and it gets pretty absurd at times. But I’m always trying to figure out where they come from. And why they’re behaving like this.”
The Tonya Harding story is about women’s unheard voices, news, news consumption and the acidic resentment felt by the American underclass. It’s also about reality television, which Harding more or less invented. “She did, in the sense that she was on TV 24 hours a day,” Gillespie said. “We went back to look and the amount of footage is astounding. So is the lack of protection she had around her. Connie Chung was interviewing her on the plane to Lillehammer. There was no one around protecting her. It’s astounding she ever got as far as she did.”
Harding’s signature move was the triple axel, a move few female skaters would even attempt at the time, and which only eight female skaters have ever landed in an international competition. It helped her win the 1991 U.S. Championship, and was a product of her sturdy physique — which, ironically, counted against her otherwise. “She was told to be a certain thing, to have a certain image,” Robbie said. “She’s meant to be thin and light and graceful like a princess, when in actual fact she’s an athlete.”
Robbie doesn’t look like Harding either, but she said that’s just part of the job. “It would be the same as someone giving me a script and saying, ‘You’re playing a runway model,’ ” she said. “I don’t have the build to be a runway model, I don’t have the build to be an Olympic athlete. You do all the training you can, obviously, in the time you have; I did months of skate training and was at the gym constantly, but I could never build up the kind of muscle Tonya had when she landed her triple axel.”
Stan, who met with Jeff Gillooly and said he seemed “weary of revisiting the whole thing,” said the Tonya Harding story mirrors a number of other American movies about very American stories. “It’s reminiscent of ‘Raging Bull,’ ” he said. “And ‘Fargo.’ ‘To Die For.’ It has pieces of those movies. Tonya and Jeff were both poor; they came from not a whole lot and sure, I think there’s a message here about how someone like that would be ill-equipped to deal with fame and money and having contracts thrown at them. They grew up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And it all happened so quickly.”
“I, Tonya” is likely to be a fascinating film for all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons; people who will laugh, said Gillespie, and people who won’t understand at all why other people are laughing.
“I usually hate watching myself in anything,” said Stan. “But the truth is I was so caught up in the music and the movie and the way he shot it that I kind of forgot I was in it.”
LOOPS, FLOPS AND LUTZES
“I, Tonya” may well be the “Citizen Kane” of skating movies, although the competition isn’t all that fierce: As often happens in sports films, the sport is the center of the cinematic action while the storyline stays largely on the bench. But there have been some interesting-bordering-on-ludicrous entries in the arena of the ice-skating film.:
SUN VALLEY SERENADE (1941) Sonja Henie, the three-time Olympic champion from Norway, was one of Hollywood’s highest paid stars of the 1930s. “Sun Valley Serenade” featuring Glenn Miller Orchestra, the dancing Nicholas Brothers and co-stars John Payne, Milton Berle and Dorothy Dandridge, is probably her best film. It also features the diminutive star doing what she does best, and we don’t mean acting.
SNOW WHITE AND THE THREE STOOGES (1961) The Messrs. Howard and Fine joined Carol Heiss, 1960 Olympic Figure Skating Champion, in a variation on the old fairy tale. Instead of Dwarfs, we get Stooges.
ON THIN ICE: THE TAI BABILONIA STORY (1990) — Rachael Crawford and Charlie Stratton starred in this biopic of the first African-American skater to compete at the Olympics. With her longtime pairs partner, Randy Gardner, she was expected to win at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, until an injury to Gardner scuttled that plan.
ATTACK OF THE 5’ 2” WOMEN (1994) A National Lampoon production for Showtime, Julie Brown’s quickly made comedy was based on two sensational stories r from the ’90s headlines and presented as a double bill — “Tonya: The Battle of Wounded Knee” and “He Never Gave Me Orgasm: Theipped Lenora Babbitt Story.”
BLADES OF GLORY (2007) Two gold-medal goofballs (Will Ferrell and Jon Heder) — play rival top-ranked men’s skaters who are banned from single’s competitions for life after a meltdown on the podium, but decide to team up after they realize they can still compete in pairs. Exactly what you’d expect.
— John Anderson