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Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya defies conventional wisdom. The idea of a feature film centered around the incident which dominated headlines during the 1994 Winter Olympics seems insane. What more could a movie add? Mix in the idea of casting Margot Robbie in the title role, and you have the makings of a cinematic bomb. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the theater. Rather than focusing on a retelling of the scandal, Gillespie’s film focuses on telling this tale from many perspectives (Harding, her mother, Jeff Gillooly, and his buddy Shawn Eckardt), each of them having their version of these events. Screenwriter Steven Rogers uses several interviews which were highly contradictory to craft a narrative which breaks the 4th wall and paints Harding in a sympathetic light. Mix in performances from the entire cast which were dynamite and I, Tonya amounts to the biggest surprise of awards season.
Rogers’s writing should be considered one of the best efforts of the 2017/18 Awards Season. He seamlessly mixes in varying perspectives on the events surrounding the incident but also manages to mix in Harding’s background story as well. Doing this created sympathy for a person who has received none over the years. If anything, we learned that the vilified former Olympian didn’t have much of a chance.The skating world saw her as nothing more than “white trash” in a sport for “upper class” individuals. If Rogers isn’t rewarded for his efforts with an Oscar nomination in a few weeks, then the process is incredibly flawed. The same could be said about the performances of Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.
At first, Robbie being cast as Harding seemed like a colossal mistake. No amount of makeup could transform her into the former Olympian. However, the Australian actress didn’t rely on heavy prosthetics to turn in the performance of her career. She was able to capture the essence of the disgraced ice skating champion. Rather than fall into the same trap that Jim Carrey did in Man From The Moon, Robbie was projecting her character on screen rather than impersonating her. We could see Tonya’s heart shatter everytime someone doubted her. When the judge banned Harding from the one thing which defined her life, we were destroyed as well. It’s not because audiences were okay with what happened before the 1994 Olympics, Robbie’s performance brought that emotion out in all of us. It’s a shame that in a year where Sally Hawkins (Shape Of Water) and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO) are equally fantastic that she has to compete with them in the category of Best Actress but at the very least she should get an Oscar nomination too. Allison Janney is a different discussion altogether.
The Academy should just give Janney the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress now and save themselves some time during the ceremony. Janney plays Lavona Golden (Harding’s mother) with such reckless intensity that she in many ways steals the show from her castmates. Her performance was reminiscent of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. While Matt Damon was great in the film, Williams brought something out Damon that hadn’t been seen before. Janney had the same effect on I, Tonya. When an actress loses herself in a role the way she did, how can Janney not be the odds-on favorite to win an Oscar?
If anything I, Tonya is another lesson on how walking in with preconceived ideas can be a bad thing. What appeared to be just a collection of bad ideas and a rehash of events surrounding the 1994 Winter Olympics, in reality, is one best films of the year. Often critics are guilty of judging something before the opening credits even roll, much like the skating judges did to Harding before she stepped on to the ice.