They hadthe script, by veteran screenwriter Steven Rogers, the one that had burned up Hollywood with its dark humor, its cast of unreliable narrators and its promise of shedding new light on a story that had wrapped up a quarter century ago. They had the star—Margot Robbie, the 27-year-old Australian who had seemed in most ways to be the opposite of Tonya Harding but who had put in months of work to embody the world-class figure skater. In the early stages of filming I, Tonya, though, its producers and director Craig Gillespie realized there was one thing they didn’t have: the cooperation of the parakeet.
Specifically, of the parakeet’s owner, who told them that the bird could not be exposed to smoke—a problem, as it was supposed to be perched on the shoulder of Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden (played by Allison Janney), who was rarely without a cigarette. Janney suggested a solution: Perhaps her monstrous character could suck, instead, from an oxygen tank. Though the creature kept pecking at its tubes, the fix worked. The filming of what would become the year’s best sports movie, released in select cities last week, could proceed.
I, Tonya is bathed in cigarette smoke, not all of it curling from the lips of Golden. It underscores the unlikeliness of Harding’s emergence from that poisonous haze to become the 1991 U.S. champion, the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition—and then the villain in what remains one of history’s great sporting scandals.
The film shows that Harding’s life was one of abuse and violence, both before and after Shane Stant’s baton struck the right knee of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, in January, 1994. (Though both skaters participated in the Lillehammer Olympics a month later—a recovered Kerrigan won silver, Harding finished eighth—Harding would plead guilty to one count of interfering with the prosecution of Kerrigan’s attackers, who were linked to Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband, and his friend Shawn Eckardt.) Much of that abuse, according to the movie, was perpetrated by Golden, who devoted her life to throwing knives—only most of them figurative—at her improbably gifted daughter. “You skated like a graceless bull d---,” -LaVona tells a young Tonya after a competition. “I was embarrassed for you.” (Golden has denied allegations that she abused her daughter.)
But Harding, growing up in Oregon, suffered at the hands of others, too. Like Gillooly, whom she married when she was 19. While Rogers’s screenplay is largely based on interviews he conducted with both Harding and -Gillooly—who tell stories often wildly contradictory—it’s hard to watch Sebastian Stan, playing Gillooly, slam Robbie’s head into a mirror and believe, as Stan’s character claims, that he never hit her.
Harding was also ill-treated by the skating establishment, which prized the refined image projected by Kerrigan (who’s only a fleeting character in the film) and rejected the hardscrabble Harding—who looked as if she chopped wood every morning because she did chop wood every morning—despite her skill.
“You’re just not the image we want to portray,” a cornered skating judge tells Harding at one point. “You’re representing our country, for f---’s sake. We need a wholesome American family. You just refuse to play along.”
“I don’t have a wholesome American family,” she protests. “Why can’t it just be about the skating?”
Then, too, Harding was victimized by an American public just becoming hooked on a 24-hour news cycle, one in constant need of new heroes and villains. “I thought being famous was going to be fun,” Robbie’s Tonya tells the audience, directly. “I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline. It was like being abused all over again, only this time it was by you.”
Robbie, also a producer on the film, came to the story with the seemingly impossible: fresh eyes. She was a toddler living on the other side of the world when Harding and Kerrigan became daily fixtures on CNN and Hard Copy. When Rogers’s wickedly clever script crossed her desk, she had never heard of -either of the skaters. “As soon as I finished it, I got on Google,” she says. “Whoa. It’s all true.”
Her nuanced portrayal of Harding—whom Robbie met just a couple of weeks before shooting began—allows us to see the skater anew, too. Robbie’s Harding is never exactly likable, in part because she refuses to accept responsibility for any of her actions. But she does emerge as something our culture never allowed her to be: a full person, deserving of empathy.
Robbie’s skating experience was limited to rec league hockey when she took on the role, and yet months of four-hour-a-day training—combined with seamless special effects, necessary in part because no stunt double in the world could pull off a triple axel—allow her to capture Harding’s athletic greatness.
More than that, though, Robbie’s performance shows us that the ice was the one place where Harding experienced pure, almost weightless joy. “Everything’s different, Jeff,” she tells Gillooly after she surpasses her childhood dream of joining the Ice Capades to become a champion. “People actually smile at me now.”
So it is heartbreaking to see how those who surround her continue to drag her down and tragic when a circuit court judge in Portland rules that part of her punishment for interfering in the prosecution of the Kerrigan assault is that she resign from the U.S. figure skating association. (She was banned for life three months later.) “Just send me to jail, and then I can still skate,” she pleads in court, in a scene that Robbie improvised beyond Rogers’s words. “Just send me to jail, and then I can still skate.”
About the famous assault: The movie doesn’t conclude definitively whether Harding was a conspirator in her rival’s kneecapping or not, though both her character and Gillooly’s suggest she couldn’t have been. That’s because Eckardt—Gillooly’s obese, basement-dwelling friend with delusions of -grandeur—was only supposed to orchestrate a series of threatening messages to Kerrigan, and he hired the hit men, including Stant, on his own.
So began Harding’s descent through the circles of postfame hell: celebrity boxing, a sex tape. That would have probably been the end of her, if not for this gonzo new reckoning. “The haters always say, ‘Tonya, tell the truth,’ ” she says in a voice-over. “There’s no such thing as truth. I mean, it’s b-------. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the f--- it wants.”
Still, even Harding gets a happy ending: She now works as a professional landscaper, deck builder and house painter in Oregon and is married with a six-year-old son. “It’s very clear that she became the kind of mother she never had,” says Robbie. “And I think that’s hugely important to her. It’s all she wants to talk about.”
Each of us, I, Tonya suggests, is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done—or, in Tonya’s case, the worst thing she might have done.