'I, Tonya' warrants high marks
The beauty of good film is in its blend of enlightenment and entertainment.
"I, Tonya" goes a long way toward covering the bill in both areas.
The life of former figure skating queen Tonya Harding is presented in provocative fashion in the movie that recently hit the big screen across the country, including her native Portland.
I ventured downtown to the Regal Fox Tower Stadium theater for the Portland premiere, joining a near-packed theater as we watched an interpretation of the drama that was Harding's life and career.
When "Portland, Oregon" flashed across the screen early in the movie, several in the audience cheered. But it would be a stretch to call Harding a "favorite daughter" of the city. She was scorned after her alleged involvement in the Nancy Kerrigan knee-whacking adventure prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics, which turned Harding into a laughing-stock figure not only in the United States but throughout the skating world.
Through the 2000s, I'd gotten to know Tonya and had written about her several times, covering a couple of her fights in a short, ill-fated pro boxing career — including the debut in Memphis in 2003 as part of the undercard of the Mike Tyson-Clifford Etienne bout. (It took Tyson 49 seconds to knock out Etienne. Harding lost by split decision to Samantha Browning and ended her six-fight career 16 months later with a 3-3 record.)
Our last interview came at a restaurant near her then-home in Battle Ground, Washington, in 2009.
In this 2009 Portland Tribune story, Tonya Harding talks about her life after professional figure skating.
I'd grown to enjoy Harding and to appreciate her candid nature in a rough-and-tumble way, which reflected her hardscrabble beginnings growing up in Milwaukie. I admired that, after all her travails, she still wanted to make something of herself, to be liked and respected, to contribute to society in a positive way.
So I was curious to see how, eight years after we'd last crossed paths, she would be depicted in the film written by Steven Rodgers and directed by Craig Gillespie, one called "the best sports movie of 2017" by Sports Illustrated.
Like Tyson vs. Etienne, Rodgers and Hammerstein — er, Gillespie — delivered, in boxing parlance, a knockout.
I'm not sure how factual the film is. I'm sure that artistic license stretched the boundaries to help turn what already was a soap opera into a pseudo-comedy, or more accurately, a farce. Or perhaps, a faux documentary, told through the eyes of the actors playing Harding (Margot Robbie) and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).
Robbie nails the lead role. A leggy 27-year-old Australian who looks taller than her 5-6, Robbie doesn't resemble the 5-1 Harding. But she catches Tonya's attitude to a "T" ("I can be a hard-ass ... I have a truck driver's mouth," Tonya told me eight years ago), and looks the part (especially the hairstyle) as she helps narrate. Robbie spent months skating in preparation for the role; she was more than convincing with her performance on the ice, in which she did much of the skating herself.
The actors playing Harding and Gillooly alternately give their widely varying takes on how everything went down. It's poignant, it's funny, and the viewers are left to believe what they want of the sordid details.
Harding's mother, LaVona Golden, and the mastermind of the Harding plot, Shawn Eckhardt, are the ones mostly played for comic relief. Problem is, neither were funny in real life.
The blowhard Eckhardt, played expertly by Paul Walter Hauser, comes across as a buffoonish pal of Gillooly who decides that intimidating Kerrigan prior to the '94 U.S. Figure Skating Championships isn't quite enough. That's where Shane Stant and a crowbar to the knee come into play.
But it's Allison Janney who steals the show as Golden, Tonya's foul-mouthed, seemingly ill-willed mother who curses like a sailor and smokes (cigarettes) like a chimney. ("I don't consider her my mother," Tonya told me.)
Golden, who has had seven different husbands, is relentless on her daughter, from the time she was a 4-year-old beginning to skate on to adulthood.
"You skated like a graceless bull dyke," she tells Tonya after one on-ice performance.
Harding says she was physically abused by Golden — who threw a knife that stuck in her arm at one point in the film — and by Gillooly. He pulls a gun on her, then on himself, after she left him.
"You're a dumb piece of s—t who thinks she deserves to be hit," Golden tells Tonya. "Maybe he should hit you. You'd learn to keep your mouth shut. That would sure help me out."
At one skating event in the movie, Golden pays off a man to heckle her daughter — ostensibly to motivate her to a greater performance.
The only time Golden displayed any kindness is after what the film's protagonists refer to as "the f-ing incident," when she surrepticiously tries to pry damning information from her daughter with a hidden recorder. It is one of several scenes that leave the viewer wondering, "Did that really happen?"
Through all the mayhem, the inclination is to develop sympathy and compassion for Harding, who is surrounded by louts and yet rises to incredible heights as a rebel and outlier on the international skating scene.
"You're not the image we want to be portrayed," a cornered skating judge tells Tonya at one competition.
"Why can't it just be about the skating?" she asks.
It never was. And it all led to the "f-ing" incident.
"I was loved for a minute," Harding says, looking into the camera near the film's end. "Then I was hated. Then I was just a punch line. It was like being abused all over again, only this time it was by you."
In my piece with Tonya, then 39, in 2009, I wrote, "She'll probably never be a mother."
But she is today, to a 7-year-old son, Gordon, with her husband, Joe Price.
In the closing credits, updates are given on the key characters.
One line reads: "Tonya would like people to know she is a good mother."
I don't doubt that for a second.