I was 13 when Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan went head-to-head at the 1994 Winter Olympics, following the attack on Nancy Kerrigan which was orchestrated by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband. The unsuccessful attempt to break Kerrigan’s leg, and the subsequent controversy, caused a media frenzy with Tonya Harding cast firmly as the villain of the piece. As a teenager who was already a fan of watching ice skating, I was completely swept up by the whole drama, and when I tuned in to watch the final, I was definitely rooting for the media’s darling, Kerrigan.
Nobody can really argue that the media coverage of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan was fair or balanced, but then neither is the movie I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie as the figure skater everyone loves to hate. It’s told largely from Harding’s perspective, based on interviews with her, and it seeks to delve a bit deeper into the character which was assassinated so badly in the media in 1994.
Tonya Harding never really fitted in with the figure skating world’s idea of what a figure skater should be – prim, proper and graceful. Harding was a powerful and athletic skater, with a white trash background and a brash persona. Watching the scandal unfold in 1994, I don’t think I was aware of Harding’s story – the beatings she received from her husband Jeff Gillooly (played in I, Tonya by Sebastian Stan) or the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, who is played with relish by Allison Janney. Janney’s vicious and often hilarious portrayal of Harding’s mother, LaVona, surely puts her in strong contention for an Oscar.
Harding was arguably a better skater than Nancy Kerrigan, but she was not the sort of skater the judges approved of. They marked her down for her choice of music and her homemade costumes – they were fairly open about the fact that she was not the sort of skater they wanted to see on the top step of the podium. Kerrigan, on the other hand, was exactly what they wanted – demure and graceful, the wholesome face of Campbell’s Soup. I don’t really recall hearing about this in the aftermath of the attack on Kerrigan, Harding was painted by the media as a two-dimensional villain, who’d put her husband up to physically assaulting her rival to pave a clear path to the 1994 Winter Olympics. There was no talk of her tough upbringing, or the blatant discrimination she’d suffered during competitive judging.
Tonya Harding did not act as an advisor on I,Tonya, but the movie is based on interviews with her and Jeff Gillooly, and it succeeds in fleshing out the character of Harding and making her a much more sympathetic character. She got to the top in a world where she had been repeatedly told she wasn’t welcome, and the movie goes some way towards explaining the lead-up to the attack on Kerrigan.
But are we any closer to the truth than we were in 1994? The movie’s director, Craig Gillespie, admits that Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly barely agreed on anything during their interviews, so everything that either of them said had to be taken with a pinch of salt. Gillooly clearly was behind orchestrating some sort of campaign against Kerrigan, along with Harding’s delusional self-proclaimed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhard. Gillooly claims, however, that he only ever intended to play psychological tricks on Kerrigan, by sending her death threats. He maintains that it was Eckhard who put his henchman Shane Stant up to hitting her on the leg with a baton.
The attack on Nancy Kerrigan remains to this day one of the biggest sporting scandals the world has ever seen, and I, Tonya portrays it in a gripping and entertaining way. It’s an excellent showcase for Margot Robbie, who is one of the most exciting young actors in Hollywood at the moment. She’s come a long way since starring on Aussie soap, Neighbours, and she’ll always have a place in my heart because of her role on the soap as fashion designer, Donna. Playing Tonya Harding is definitely her meatiest role to date, and she’s really likeable as the tough tomboy who’s exchanging blows with her mother in the morning and then landing perfect jumps on the ice in the afternoon.
After the attack, which gave Tonya Harding a clear shot at a place on the US Olympic team, much was made in the press about whether Harding had been in on the plot. She says she wasn’t, and certainly this is the line that the movie treads – she’s portrayed as knowing about the planned death threats, but not about the physical attack until after it had happened. But is this really the case? We’ll never know for sure, but I’ve always had my doubts about Harding’s innocence, as did the United States Figure Skating Association, who banned her from competition for life.
I, Tonya certainly succeeds in turning Tonya Harding from a pantomime villain into more of a sympathetic and relatable character, but I’m still not sure we’ve seen all the way into the heart of this story.