Tonya Harding, my star
Well this world is a cold one
But it takes one to know one
And God only knows what you are
Sufjan Stevens claims to have spent 25 years trying to write a song about Tonya Harding. In the ballad that finally appeared late last year he still can’t seem to make up his mind about the former skating champion. Was she “Portland white trash” or a “shining American star”? Or perhaps both? God only knows.
Craig Gillespie’s unorthodox bio pic, I, Tonya, doesn’t solve the puzzle, although it offers plenty of explanations as to why Harding turned out the way she did. The film is based on interviews with Tonya; her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly; and her mother, LaVona Fay Golden. The actors play the roles of the interviewees, whose stories are dramatised in the form of flashbacks.
It may sound confusing but the narrative is so fast-paced one never loses the thread, despite the many contradictions in the way incidents are remembered. Most viewers will take home memories of a fearless, barnstorming performance from Margot Robbie in the title role, and Allison Janney’s hard-edged portrayal of LaVona as the Mother from Hell. I, Tonya emerges as an exercise in black humour that might also be classified as a redneck horror movie.
From the age of four Harding was obsessed with ice skating, but in Portland, Oregon, she would always be a peasant in a sport made for princesses. Her mother, six times married and frequently between engagements, made a living as a waitress. There was no money for the glamorous costumes worn by the girls from wealthy families.
Harding’s devotion to skating saw her drop out of school early, with no concerted opposition from LaVona, who was convinced that her daughter was congenitally stupid. To make matters worse, Tonya fell for the first boy she ever dated, the gormless Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who settled every argument with a slap or a punch. Nevertheless, in 1990, at the age of 19, she married him. After three years of domestic carnage they divorced, but would keep seeing each other. Having grown up being slapped, kicked and abused by her mother, Harding apparently accepted violence as a fact of life.
This may partially explain why she was so willing to confront and abuse the judges who persisted in giving her low scores after she had palpably outskated her rivals. When cornered, one of them explains that it’s not simply about the skating, it’s the costumes of course, and keeping up the “wholesome” image of the sport.
Harding never had a chance of being “wholesome”. Not with a mother like LaVona who yells obscenities from the audience and does everything she can to upset and degrade her daughter, having come to believe that Tonya skates better when angry. It’s the most vicious of circles: the better she performs, the more appalling her treatment.
Harding became famous as the first American female skater to do the notoriously difficult maneouvre called the triple axel, but her career was constantly being stymied by the upheavals of her private life. And it wasn’t just LaVona and Jeff. The greatest blight of all was Jeff’s long-term friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) an obese, delusional nitwit whose IQ was inversely proportional to his girth. Gillespie plays up the grossness, showing Shawn perpetually snacking on greasy fast food and slurping soft drinks.
Even though he lived at home with his parents in Portland, Shawn imagined himself to be an international counter-terrorism expert, well versed in the ways of the underworld. Having talked Jeff into letting him be Harding’s “bodyguard”, it’s Shawn who had the bright idea about disabling her chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan. He even knew the guys who would do the deed.
The result was one of the most clumsily executed crimes of all time, and the fall-out, in the lead-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, was devastating. The FBI was quickly onto Jeff and Shawn, while Tonya was arraigned for “conspiring to hinder the prosecution”.
Everyone has a different recollection of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and we are given little chance of establishing Harding’s innocence or guilt. For the skating authorities, it was a convenient excuse for ridding themselves of a competitor who was always attracting the wrong sort of attention. She endured an avalanche of “fake news” long before the term was invented.
Sufjan Stevens, a pop star so intellectual that he has written an essay to accompany his song, says that Tonya Harding was “a reality TV star before such a thing even existed.” It’s true, and it’s part of her bad luck. With a CV that includes women’s boxing, a celebrity sex tape, and vintage automobile racing, Harding was made for the age of social media. Loved and reviled, idolised and mocked, she was brutalised by those around her and became a victim of her own celebrity. Although this film tries hard to be a comedy, the laughter comes through gritted teeth.
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Written by Steven Rogers
Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Caitlin Carver, Ricky Russert
USA, rated MA 15+, 120 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 February, 2018
Tonya Harding, my star