Screen and Roll: Rewatch ‘I, Tonya’ for the performances, portrayals and perfectionism

Columnist graphic for fall 2020 column "Screen and Roll" by Aidan Berg and Lauren Mattice

Over two decades have passed after U.S. Figure Skating team member, Olympic hopeful and breakthrough competitor Tonya Harding was punished and banned from the sport for her alleged involvement in “the whack,” where teammate Nancy Kerrigan was beaten before competing in the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating championship by a gang orchestrated and paid by Tonya’s ex-husband, Jeff Gilooly. Hoping to get her story straight with the public, which had ridiculed her and accused her of lying at every turn, Tonya has attempted to appear on several shows, interviews and TV specials. None of these might’ve done her story more justice than Craig Gillespie’s 2017 film, “I, Tonya.”

Spoiler alert: Read at your own risk, but seriously just watch the movie already. It’s on Hulu.

Aidan Berg: I don’t even know whether to start with the sports stuff or the nerdy filmmaking stuff from this movie, but since I know everyone read our spoiler warning at the top I’m just going to go right to the element I enjoyed the most: Lavona, who is Tonya’s mother and is played by Allison Janney, is an all caps ICONIC character. Best part of the movie to me. 

Lauren Mattice: Allison Janney is one of the best actresses working today, but her role as Lavona really gave an insight, even in a “nonfiction” movie, into what made her daughter the fierce competitor that she was. You know Lavona and Tonya’s ex-husband Jeff Gilooly both seemed to take any chance to either beat her down or take advantage of her success, but with the former it isn’t so clear what all of her motivations are. The relationships between all of them are still a he-said-she-said-she-said controversy to this day, but Tonya has repeatedly come public with stories of abuse after the general public ostracized her.  

AB: You’re right, I shouldn’t be so quick to put this character on a pedestal, but it is purely because of the way in which she is horrible that I enjoyed Lavona so much. This is the most quotable movie I have seen in a long time, and I should have seen that coming when in the first 10 minutes of the movie she tells Tonya’s coach “Lick my ass Diane, she can do a fucking triple.” She was picture perfect, and the way the movie establishes Tonya and Lavona’s relationship from the beginning sets up Tonya’s arc so well. And then, of course, Margot Robbie comes in and knocks it out of the park. 

LM: The writing and delivery of these lines was absolutely incredible and amusing at a lot of points, but I think the Lavona quote that stands out to me after dozens of times watching this film is, “I made you a champion, knowing you’d hate me for it. That’s the sacrifice a mother makes! I wish I’d had a mother like me instead of nice. Nice gets you shit!” Through the mock interviews and scenes you definitely get a sense of what Tonya and her mother had to work through for Tonya to be a champion. Quite simply, they were considered white trash, and Lavona constantly working to pay for Tonya’s lessons while Tonya eventually sacrificed education to do the same is not a side you get to see in the figure skating world.

AB: And that’s the biggest sports consideration of this: the motivations behind the athlete. Skating was how Tonya shaped her entire life. As she says at the end, it’s all she knew. She had to endure beatings and verbal abuse from her mother because of her performance, so she put everything into this. And that’s when Robbie really shines the brightest. She had a close-up while looking into the mirror before her Olympic performance toward the end of the movie where she’s applying makeup, and she shifts back and forth from a look of absolute horror at the thought of messing up and an unsettling wide-eyed smile that just gave me the creeps. You can see how literally everything in her life depends on performing this one time, and I don’t know many actors who could have portrayed it better than Robbie did.

LM: I’ll take this chance to disagree with you, and I thought that look was literally the breaking point for her, and I cry every single time. A culmination of years of turmoil because of the sport leading up to one chance at the Olympics and all the shit snowballing after couldn’t have been better posed to audiences with that close-up. Robbie is incredible as Harding not just in this scene, but she really nails different parts of Tonya that aren’t readily known to us besides her sometimes brash exterior, including her shyness when meeting Jeff for the first time, the classic Pacific Northwest accent, the drama of her interview and the quick and funny quips she lets loose to stand up to her mother. Not only that, but Robbie prepared for five months just on the skating part of the performance, dedicating 20 hours a day to getting her rhythm on the ice and even practicing her skating the day before her wedding. 

AB: That transitions nicely to some of the better filmmaking aspects of “I, Tonya.” The skating scenes are pretty great because of the access afforded by a cameraman who could capture a whole performance while skating himself, which is baffling to me even if they did take some liberties with noticeable CGI. The ability to track a routine in a sport already given to gracefulness is captivating with closeups is impressive to say the least. I also thought the mockumentary element with multiple unreliable narrators was crucial to this movie’s unique vibe: It’s a black comedy where the characters will turn to you, raise an eyebrow and make a funny quip even as their life is devolving into ruin. It jumps in and out of being that mockumentary style especially at the beginning, which is kind of jarring, but it pulled me back in when Tonya fires a shotgun at Jeff’s retreating head before staring straight at you and saying “This didn’t happen.” 

LM: It was a really interesting choice to put that element of “Well, did this really happen? Who are we supposed to believe?” because it forces those watching to take in Tonya’s point of view and then ask the same questions that the press and tabloids had for her in 1994. To me, this was the only way to set up this narrative. The film isn’t concerned with who’s right or wrong, who knew what when, what happened or didn’t, because you overwhelmingly feel, as both Robbie and the real Tonya are so good at engendering in people, something powerful for or against her at the end. It’s also no coincidence how the public ridiculed her and how Tonya is portrayed as either helpless, erratic or evil in the movie, as that is because the perception of women and especially narratives of female athletes are usually framed in this way.

AB: Yeah, one of the gripes I had with this movie was that it did kind of bludgeon the viewer over the head with some of the more depressing elements of Tonya’s life. There was a lot of domestic violence and a lot of people in the figure skating community telling her she wasn’t feminine enough for them. They’re among the most important parts of telling Tonya’s story, but they overdid it to the point that it cost her other character development that isn’t so troped. 

LM: Totally, and after jumping out of your skin at the DV and abuse at the hands of Jeff or Lavona, Tonya is picked apart by the skating community. Her background is used against her, and in a crime where Tonya had prior knowledge but no direct involvement of the assault itself, that single moment of Nancy Kerrigan’s cry of pain (though absolutely warranted) seems to supercede in the public’s eye at that point, anything Tonya went through because Kerrigan is U.S. Figure Skating’s dream girl — white, upper-class, beautiful and not concerned with pushing the boundaries of established skating conventions. It’s sad because in the skating world (thanks to my own coaches’ gossiping) Kerrigan had a larger-than-life personality, which rubbed some people the wrong way in terms of sportsmanship. But once you put her against Tonya, the antithesis of what the figure skating community wanted in a champion despite her immense talent, Kerrigan is the angel. 

AB: Sure, Kerrigan is presented as a positive character, but that’s more based on the reputation she carries into the film rather than anything the film does with her. In fact, I think the movie runs into some of the same issues with Kerrigan as it did with Tonya in terms of representing women: The longest Kerrigan is on screen is probably when it shows her “friendly relationship” with Tonya, and even then, it’s Tonya narrating over it telling us it was that way. Ultimately, we only see Kerrigan through the lens of Tonya, so she comes off as either the damsel in distress or the entitled ice queen (and I don’t mean her ability as a skater). 

LM: At least we don’t, or at least those who don’t appreciate figure skating and keep up with it (ahem) or younger generations, see this story through the lens of the press. Yes you are sort of caged in by having these roles played by actors, the presence of unreliable narrators and those breaking-the-fourth-wall scenes, but I think the most damaging thing that sort of forever shrouded the truth of what really happened is the kind of judgment the media imposed on her and dug their heels in to create a more dramatic story. Is this the best way to present sports movies, or figure skating movies in general? Of course not. But it was needed, and I saw myself in there as much as I contended with the barrage of emotions thrown at us.

Aidan Berg and Lauren Mattice are seniors writing about sports culture and entertainment. They are also the deputy outreach director and digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan, respectively. Their column, “Screen & Roll,” runs every other Monday.