I must admit I was in no rush to catch I, Tonya when it first appeared in first-run theatres. Figure skating is not exactly my cup of tea, although I admire the beauty and skill of the sport. I have also attended Stars on Ice with my partner Val Cavalini, but more to appease her for my dragging her to see bands that she really has no interest in hearing
But, five minutes into the movie I knew that this was going to be an emotional and enlightening experience for me.
My knowledge of the 5’1″ skating dynamo was basically the same as everyone else who witnessed her meteoric rise and fall in the 1990s.
In short, she was gifted and very adept at the sport. She was the first American female figure skater to successfully perform the triple axel in a short program in 1991, a feat she never was able to accomplish again in her short career.
I also knew that she didn’t fit the mold of most female figure skaters. Unlike her “All American, Apple Pie” rival, Nancy Kerrigan, Harding was a “kid from the wrong side of the tracks” who smoked, swore like a sailor and hung out with lowlifes (who would have a negative influence on her career). All making her much different than her more privileged competitors, the little princesses who were all smiles and sequins.
And, of course, there was “The Incident,” as it is referred to in the movie.
A quick review of the incident: On January 6, 1994, Harding’s main team competitor Nancy Kerrigan was attacked after a practice session at the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit by an assailant, later identified as Shane Stant. Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her self-appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, hired Stant to break Kerrigan’s right leg so that she would be unable to compete at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
Questions about Harding’s complicity in the attack created a media frenzy and scandal eventually leading to a court case which banned her for life from the American Figure Skating Association, bringing her career to a screeching halt.
Both in real life and the movie (as played convincingly well by Margot Robie), Harding insisted she knew nothing about the attack. Nevertheless, as Harding the movie character says after her banishment and the scandal “I became a punch-line.”
The opening credits proclaim that the movie is “Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” From beginning to end I, Tonya allows its key characters to speak directly to the audience, through faux interviews that reproduce the boxy frames of TV reportage, and through fourth-wall breaks during the action.
Margot Robie is fantastic as the outsider red-neck Harding and it’s easy to understand why she received an Oscar nod for her performance. She is Tonya Harding in this movie, and it’s only when you see photographs of her and the real Harding that you notice how dissimilar the two really are.
Allison Janney as Tonya’s chain-smoking mother, LaVona, is equally as convincing. And she scores some of the best lines in the movie. “Show me a family that doesn’t have ups and downs!” she says after an abusive episode beween her and daughter. It’s easy to understand why she won an Oscar for her role.
The other supporting actors are all similarly convincing in their roles. Jeff Gillooy (as played by Sebastian Stan), Harding’s abusive husband, and his bumbling sidekicks provide comic relief, and it comes as no surprise to the audience why their scheme unfolded and they were apprehended quickly.
To be sure, the film captures the gritty realism of Harding’s “white trash” redneck upbringing and demeanour better than any film in my memory. Abusive parents, heavy drinking, premarital sex, excessive profanity (F-Bombs fly throughout the movie as does the four letter word for a woman’s vagina), and a general sense of despair are the hallmarks of underclass life. Today, Harding, her mother, and her cohorts would likely be Trump supporters wearing “Make America Great” ball-caps.
And here’s where my emotional attachment to the film comes in.
Like Harding, I was a working-class kid born on the wrong sides of the tracks, raised on Mother’s Allowance by a single mother who was both negligent and alcoholic. My absentee father, also an alcoholic and self-proclaimed con man, drifted in and out of my life, wreaking havoc and chaos each time he reappeared. The word “Fuck” was used as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb in our dysfunctional home. And like Harding, my self-esteem and self-image suffered as a consequence. As an escape, I turned to intellectual pursuits and learned how to play the drums after seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964. From that point on, all I wanted to be was a rock star.
Eschewing school (I once had a report card so bad, the Principal recommended that I immediately transfer to the local vocational school where I could learn a trade and become a contributor to society) for my Rock ‘n’ Roll career, I stumbled through most of my adolescence, choosing to live on my own at age 17.
After playing in a string of London rock bands, some very good and others not so much so, I applied to and was accepted by the University of Western Ontario as a Mature Student in 1975. Earning degrees in History & Politics and Education, I was on the Dean’s Honour each year of my attendance. Upon graduation, I was lucky enough to catch on with the London Board of Education (to later become the TVDSB), where I spent the next thirty years teaching high school History and coaching Football and Rugby.
Obviously, my childhood and adolescent experiences mirror to a certain extent those of Harding. Always consciously aware of my social class and unique upbringing, I usually felt like an outsider in most social situations, and run-ins with established authority figures were frequent (something that continued with administrators during my teaching career).
And like Harding, I grew up with a chip on my shoulder the size of a two-by-four. For me, words were my weapon of choice, and I developed a sharp tongue and wit, puncturing as many bourgeois balloons as possible along the way.
As a result, throughout most of the movie, I had my fists clenched in anger of how Harding was treated by her so-called “betters” and authority figures. At one point, I broke into tears when Harding confronts a judge about her marks and he politely tells her that she doesn’t fit the model of a figure skater suggesting to her that she find another sport. It was all I could do to prevent myself from shouting “Punch him in the fucking chops” at the screen.
To sum up, while for most people, I, Tonya may be an extremely well done depiction of a recent event in sports and cultural history, for some of us, it’s like seeing our lives portrayed on the silver screen.
And it is for that reason, I have to shout: I Love You Tonya Harding!