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Does I, Tonya Deserve to Win Oscar Gold?

December 13, 2017


If I, Tonya were a figure-skating jump, it would be a triple axel, a feat with such a high degree of difficulty that no woman ever landed it in competition until Tonya Harding came along. And writer Steven Rogers, director Craig Gillespie, and especially producer-star Margot Robbie nail it.

How do you make Harding, who became the most hated woman in America after her associates arranged the knee-capping of her Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, into a sympathetic figure? You start with a script that suggests Harding was just as much, if not more, of a victim than Kerrigan. While acknowledging she might be an unreliable narrator, I, Tonya depicts her relentless abuse at the hands of her mother (Allison Janney, who could add an Oscar to her collection of seven Emmys for The West Wing and Mom with her fiercely funny performance) and her husband, Jeff Gillooly (the solid Sebastian Stan).

Gillespie’s breakneck direction owes more than a small debt to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, with its propulsive visuals and deliciously irresistible junk-pop soundtrack, but you could certainly borrow from worse. But it’s really Robbie who deserves the bulk of the credit here. I’ll admit, I was skeptical when I was heard the classy Aussie stunner was cast as the tacky American skater. How wrong I was. Robbie builds on the promise of her shoulda-been-nominated role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s ferocious wife in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. She doesn’t try to make you feel sorry for Harding as she creates a portrait of a woman who’s relentless in her pursuit of the respect she’s undeservedly denied by her family, figure-skating judges and an unforgiving media and mass culture.

The last of these is represented by an ebullient Bobby Cannavale as a producer of the tabloid TV series Hard Copy. Without leaving his office chair during his mockudrama confessionals, the reliably versatile Cannavale once again proves he’s a true character actor in a leading man’s body. I, Tonya‘s biggest scene stealer, however, is Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, whose hysterical delusions of being a counterterrorist international man of mystery are dwarfed only by his appetite for hot dogs.

Nothing on Gillespie’s or Rogers’ spotty cinematic resumes could’ve prepared moviegoers for a film that skates so gracefully on a thin line between satire and tragedy. Like The Disaster Artist, I, Tonya takes the story of an apparent failure and turns it into a triumph. Don’t be surprised if Robbie and Janney pull off upsets of their own on Oscar night.

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