I, Tonya, with Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, and Sebastian Stan, is a black comedy about class, gender, and the most notorious incident in the history of competitive figure skating.
I’ve had this movie on my watch list for a while (it’s available on Hulu), partly because I remember the attack on Nancy Kerrigan being in the news, partly because I’m a fan of Sebastian Stan. Stan is best known for his work as Bucky Barnes in the Captain America movies, but he’s done a wide range of stage, television, and film work; I wanted to see him play a role that was neither tragic brainwashed assassin nor weeping, vulnerable queer boy.
This movie deserved more attention than I think it got, although Janney did take home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Tonya’s razor-tongued, chain-smoking mother. Robbie, Janney, and Stan all play their characters over a wide spread of ages, from Harding’s teen years to the present day. (McKenna Grace plays the pre-pubescent Tonya and wins the viewer’s heart.) It weaves interviews with the principals from the present day with recreations of incidents as described by one or another of them, creating a texture of unreliable narrative where the only thing we can count on is the performances on the ice. Footage of the actual performance in which Harding pulled off the triple axel, the first woman to do so in competition, accompanies the credits.
The reviews I had seen didn’t say much about Stan’s performance, to my disappointment; however, having seen the movie, I think I know why. It’s not that he does a poor job, far from it. It’s just that, as Gertrude Stein said of Los Angeles, there’s no there there. Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s one-time husband, is fundamentally a hollow man; there’s something concave about him; he doesn’t take up space. Harding is unmistakably the dominant partner in the relationship, and Gillooly seems not to mind organizing his life around er career. That Stan conveys this while also playing scenes of violence is some damned fine acting.
Warnings: It *is* a violent film. Harding’s mother is physically and verbally abusive while Harding is under her roof. Gillooly hits Harding and manhandles her brutally and Harding punches back. The violence often seems casual and unthinking, simply the first line of communication between people who have no idea how to articulate their feelings. It’s part and parcel of Harding’s class difference from the other skaters, whose mothers aren’t waitresses, whose obligatory fur coat is not pieced together from the skins of rabbits she shot and killed herself. The “incident”, as the film calls it, the physical attack on Nancy Kerrigan, is, no doubt deliberately, one of the least explicit scenes; we see a lot of blows land, but we don’t see the baton land on Kerrigan’s knee. As the older Harding points out, Kerrigan got hit once and people were outraged. Harding was attacked and hit hundreds of times, but no one cared.
Aside from the caveat about violence, I do recommend this movie. It ends with the actual footage of Harding skating the program in which she debuted her triple axel, a move so demanding that she was the first female skater to master it, and it had to be created by CGI for the film. At the conclusion of the program, she doesn’t wait demurely for the applause to begin; she skates right up to the camera, glowing, triumphant, and her face says, “Fuck ’em all, I DID IT.”