Film & Television

I, Tonya: The Mostly True Story of Ice Skating’s Most Striking Woman

What’s tougher to take is watching how the establishment punishes Harding for her otherness. Lacking the designer costumes and princess demeanor of her competitors, her scores lag behind lesser athletes’. At one point, after nailing a superb routine and earning lackluster points, she confronts the judges. “How do I get a fair shot here?” she demands. The smug judge replies, “We also judge on presentation.” Harding’s response? “Suck my dick!”

Margot Robbie, who’s nominated for Best Actress, does a really stupendous job as Harding. She somehow balances the disgraced skater’s humanity with her take-no-prisoners defensiveness. We see real elation when she takes to the ice and equally real disgust when her efforts are discounted. She doesn’t want to be pitied; she wants to be given her due. When she’s skating, there is genuine rage under all the smiles, sequins and makeup. What strikes you as you watch Harding’s short-lived career is how deserving she is, in terms of sheer talent and yet how difficult it is to like her. Even as you root for her, you recognize that it’s easier to cheer on the polite and pretty girls in their Vera Wang dresses. Even when she triumphs, you know she’s thinking, “So there!”

Robbie is surrounded by an excellent cast, in particular Allison Jannie whose portrayal of Harding’s mother is also recognized with an Oscar nomination. Endlessly ambitious, she is often grotesque and only shows glimpses of anything resembling maternal love when her daughter can’t see it. When Harding tries to piece together a charade of a “wholesome family” in order to become a more popular contender, her mother berates her. “You think Sonya Henie’s mother loved her? Poor fuckin’ you. I didn’t stay home making apple brown bettys. No, I made you a champion knowing you’d hate me for it. That’s the sacrifice a mother makes. I wish I had a mother like me instead of nice. Nice gets you shit. I didn’t like my mother either, so what? I fucking gave you a gift.” Janney has already won the Golden Globe and the SAG. The Oscar seems likely, although she has tough competition in Laurie Metcalf playing another outrageous (but far more likeable) mother in Lady Bird.

Other cast standouts include Sebastian Stan as the weasely Gillooly, Paul Walter Hauser as the deeply delusional Eckherd, Julianne Nicholson as Harding’s coach Diane Rawlinson, and the wonderful young Grace McKenna (Gifted), who continues to perfect the world’s most formidable scowl as the young Tonya.

With impressive CGI effects (which may have contributed to I, Tonya’s third Oscar nomination for Best Editing), Robbie appears to be as accomplished a skater as Harding. In fact, some of the movie’s most exhilarating moments are scenes of the skater’s virtuosic routines, which have, of course, been created for the screen. It adds another layer to the film’s contemplation of truth.

Harding, of course, has a definitive opinion about all that. Middle-aged and chain-smoking in her kitchen, she shares it. “America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate, and the haters always say. ‘Tonya, tell the truth!’ There’s no such thing as truth. I mean it’s bullshit! Everyone has their own truth.”

Well, the truth this week in South Korea is that even as we celebrate Nagasu as the first American woman to land a triple axel in the Olympics, Harding’s name is back in the press. Twenty-five years ago, she was the first American woman to land one in any international competition.

And, I’m sure she’s thinking, “So there!”

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