January 6th, 1994 was a pivotal day in my life, as was September 8th, 2017. The first date was the day infamous figure skater Tonya Harding was telegraphed into my consciousness when her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was brutally attacked in a practice rink in Detroit, Michigan. The second date was when I, a self-diagnosed Tonya Harding superfan, watched the world premiere screening of I, Tonya at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Let me take you back to the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. With two crucial Olympic qualifying spots on the line, America’s sweetheart, Nancy Kerrigan, was competing against the not-your-typical-ice princess, Tonya Harding, for a spot on the Olympic team. Cut to: Nancy being viciously clubbed in the knee, Harding winning the championships, both being cherry-picked for the Olympic team and then-in one of the most bizarre developments ever-it was discovered that the four men who carried out the attack were connected to Harding, one being her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly.
The “whack heard round the world” set off a media frenzy and became one of America’s first stories fuelling the 24-hour news cycle. It was my first introduction to the sport of figure skating, with a full-blown soap opera plot line developing daily. I couldn’t get enough.
Harding and Kerrigan eventually went blade-to-blade at the 1994 Olympics, where Kerrigan skated the performance of her life and won a silver medal. Harding, broken skate lace and all, managed decent but underwhelming performances that landed her in eighth place.
The major question on everyone’s lips: did Harding know about the attack and was she somehow involved? Harding has always maintained that she was unaware of the planned attack; however, she later pled and was found guilty of conspiracy to hinder the prosecution for her actions related to the pre-meditated assault. Perhaps more devastatingly, she was also given a lifetime ban from the United States Figure Skating Association.
Okay, so maybe by this point you’re wondering-why am I a Tonya Harding superfan? I’ve dressed up as her for Halloween; I’ve had a private tour of the Tonya Harding museum in Brooklyn (it’s amazing-if you haven’t been, go); and I sought out a restaurant that serves a “Tonya Harding Club Sandwich.” I’m even contemplating getting a Tonya tattoo.
What would compel me to be so drawn to a person America viewed as public enemy number one and viewed as a punch line? Quite simply, Harding is largely misunderstood. She was a product of her environment, which was neither healthy nor happy. Her upbringing resulted in her being a complete loose cannon. She was a wildly talented skater who never got the marks or credit she deserved. She could effortlessly land the very difficult triple axel-a trick women in the sport today still struggle with. She was an underdog, always with the odds stacked against her. I guess I like to root for an underdog. She got the shit end of the stick most of her life and still does today. Nancy Kerrigan wasn’t the only victim in this story.
Late last year, director Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya starring Margot Robbie began shooting. Hollywood has been trying to tell the Tonya/Nancy saga for years. It has begged for a miniseries or film treatment. I always thought it might be a perfect fit for Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story or Feud. Director Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers have, in my opinion, taken the right approach in I, Tonya by creating a dark comedy. The film is hysterically funny, while humanizing Harding at the same time. It is also very true to the details of her life and career.
The film is framed around real interviews with the story’s major players. It has a bit of a mockumentary feel but doesn’t play like a Christopher Guest film. This approach was smart because the entire truth of Harding’s life and its cast of characters are so wild and outrageous, without the asides, the average viewer would simply not believe this to be a true story. Allison Janney is outstanding as Tonya’s monstrous mom Lavona, and Paul Walter Hauser is brilliant as the moronic Shawn Eckhart, who was the no-brains of the whole “take-out-Nancy operation.” Robbie could have played Harding as more volatile because, in real life, Harding was a complete PR nightmare. Robbie’s Harding is a tad too cautious and doe-eyed compared to the Harding I know. The film isn’t going to be ranked among the best of all time, but it certainly is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Both crowds at TIFF (I saw the film twice in as many days) gave rapturous applause after the screenings.
The story of Tonya Harding is a complicated one, especially to adapt for the screen. I, Tonya helps to illustrate that Tonya didn’t have it easy. We empathize with her, maybe for the first time ever. Harding wasn’t perfect on or off the ice, but she never deserved to be a punch line for the rest of her life. During the screening’s Q&A, it was shared that Harding has seen the film and gave it her blessing. As for me? Well, this Tonya Harding superfan also gives the film his blessing.