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Sunday, January 14, 2018

"I, Tonya" Funny, Heartbreaking, Revelatory

Do you want to be shocked? Here goes: "I, Tonya" is a great movie. That's right. A film about a tabloid scandal in the world of women's figure skating is not just a good movie, it's a great one. I cannot think of any other film that made me laugh out loud and cry so hard, and to do both at once, in reaction to the same scene.

"I, Tonya" is as frightening and heartbreaking a depiction of child abuse as I have ever seen. It is as profound a meditation on class. Its depiction of "white trash, redneck, trailer trash" loves, lifestyles, dreams, delusions, smeared kitchens, underdone bedrooms, and dimly-lit living rooms ripped my heart right out of my chest. If you love movies and you care about social class in America, and how the 24/7 news cycle brainwashes gullible audiences and destroys lives, you owe it to yourself to see "I, Tonya."

Allison Janney just won the Golden Globe for her portrayal of LaVona Fay "Sandy" Golden, Tonya Harding's mother. Janney's performance is one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen in any movie. When Janney is onscreen, you can't take your eyes off her. There is something very compelling about a mother who abuses her own daughter. You want to understand. You want to find the mechanism that runs this monster. You search for some sign of humanity, of redemption, of love. Though "I, Tonya," is sometimes a campy movie, Janney is never campy. She is a force of nature, like a scorpion or Bubonic plague. There is a scene in "I, Tonya," where Tonya's mother performs an act of betrayal of her daughter so severe that it took my breath away. This betrayal, the real Tonya Harding says, took place in real life. What a lousy "mother."

There is a special hatred for white trash in America. This hatred has no easy name like "racism." We all know that racism is evil, but Americans are always eager to mock and denigrate working-class whites, especially poor white women. The 24/7 tabloid news cycle bashed Tonya Harding far harder, and for far longer, than Gillooly's goons bashed Nancy Kerrigan's knee.

Tabloids told gullible audiences too lazy to think for themselves that Tonya Harding herself planned the attack. The legal record, and the film "I, Tonya," tell a different story. Teenaged Tonya married the first man she dated. He beat her, as did her mom. It was he, and his delusional friend Shawn Eckhardt, court records say, who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan. Tonya learned of this after the attack and did not turn him in. She was punished for that. Though she had no means of earning a livelihood outside of skating, she was forced out of skating for life.

In fact, the world of women's figure skating never much liked Tonya Harding. She was a superior athletic skater, but she wasn't pretty, patrician and ethereal as the judges preferred. Tonya Harding has been screwed over by many for a long time, and for all the wrong reasons. I'm glad she has this film to tell another side to her story.

"I, Tonya" does not whitewash or glamorize her. She is shown fighting and breaking up with Gillooly, and then going back to this man she knows is bad for her. Tonya is foul-mouthed and she gets angry at judges who cheat her on scores. She sabotages her own training by drinking, smoking, and partying. Margot Robbie is terrific. She does almost all of her own skating, after months of training. The had to CGI the triple axel, because only Tonya Harding, and a handful of other women, could do that.

"I, Tonya"'s depiction of Jeff Gillooly and his bizarre goons is both hysterically funny and dreadful. Sebastian Stan plays Gillooly. Though he is repeatedly shown beating Tonya, I never lost sympathy for him. I loathed him as a loser, but I could see his skewed humanity. He acknowledges, with regret, destroying his wife's exceptional skating career. The real Jeff Gillooly acknowledged the same thing, and also expressed regret.

Shawn Eckhardt, who was happy to identify himself as the attack mastermind, may have been mentally ill. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he claimed to be a terrorism expert. In fact, he was a loser who lived at home with his parents. He died young. Both Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt changed their names after the attack. Gillooly, now Jeff Stone, has had repeated run-ins with the law. His second wife committed suicide.

Tonya Harding has worked hard to keep her head above water. That, after all she'd been through, she did not become a criminal, is testimony to her inner strength. That so many people gave in to bread-and-circuses demonization of her, without knowing all the facts of the case, says nothing good about people's eagerness to hate, and the tabloid press' eagerness to profit from hate. 

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