Monday 10 December 2018

Tonya Harding: New insight into the real-life story behind Margot Robbie's buzzy biopic

A new biopic of Tonya Harding looks at the skater's tumultuous life and the attack that made her infamous

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Tonya Harding
Nancy Kerrigan
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The moments when winter sports capture the imagination of the general public are few and far between.

Torvill and Dean with their stark and mesmerising version of Bolero in Sarajevo in 1984, comes to mind, or perhaps the Jamaican bobsleigh team providing Hollywood with a ready made script in Calgary in 1988.

Undoubtedly the most electric moment in all winter sports history came in 1994 however when in the run up to the Olympics in Lillehammer America's figure skating queen, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked by a man who turned out to have been hired by the husband of her arch rival Tonya Harding. The attack came less than a year after the tennis player Monica Seles had been stabbed on court during a match in Germany and prompted widespread debate about female athletes' vulnerability to crazed spectators. And, irresistibly to the press, the scandal involved a so-called golden girl of the sport, the smiling, perfect girl next door Nancy Kerrigan and a woman who looked like she may have tried out for Glamorous Ladies Of Wrestling.

I, Tonya, which premiered last week to rave reviews in America, goes behind this punchline caricature to the real backstory of Harding in a script that burns with dark humour and shows how our perceptions of heroes and villains may be skewed. The movie focuses on the relationship between Harding, played with trailer park aplomb by Margot Robbie, and her mother LaVona Golden (played by Allison Janney), who gives her svengali-like advice through a haze of cigarette smoke. The film shows that Harding's life was one of abuse and violence, both before and after the hit job which guaranteed her lasting infamy.

Golden was said by some to be living out her own ambitions through her daughter, but Tonya was always a gifted athlete. She began skating at age three, and started landing complicated jumps by 10. Harding was never the most beautiful or graceful skater, but she was generally the most powerful. She saw skating as not only her passion but as an escape from her troubled home life. Fellow skaters and their parents reported seeing Golden hit and yell at Tonya during practice. The film shows Golden, throwing knives - only most of them metaphorical - at her improbably gifted daughter. "You skated like a graceless bull d---," LaVona tells a young Tonya after a competition. "I was embarrassed for you." (Golden has always denied allegations that she abused her daughter.) Tonya's father Al Harding once recalled the family living in a trailer, and notes that though he was close with his daughter, his wife was alcoholic and abusive. "My relationship with my mom is really bad," then-15-year-old Tonya says in a clip from the American documentary Price of Gold. "She hits me and she beats me and she drinks. She's an alcoholic."

Harding dropped out of high school at 15 to pursue professional skating. "It was so hard to survive - moving so much, not having many friends. But I loved my skating," Harding once told an American documentary.

Tonya Harding
Tonya Harding

When she was 20, at the skating nationals in Minneapolis, Harding became the first American woman to land a triple axel, a difficult three-and-a-half rotation jump which had up to then only been successfully completed by men. The judges could no longer discount her and she became the national champion. Even success did not seem to make her fit in, however, and in skating competitions she seemed to stand out against the cast of dainty, doll-like competitors from comfortable backgrounds. Kerrigan fitted this stereotype. She wore designer costumes, used classical music as her soundtrack, and played up her traditional good looks. Harding put it bluntly in Price of Gold: "She's a princess, I'm a piece of crap."

While still in her teens Harding met and married Jeff Gillooly. They had a tempestuous relationship and at one point he "threatened to break his wife's legs", The New York Times reported. Harding filed at least two restraining orders against him during their marriage, which lasted from 1990 to 1993. It was Gillooly, who came up with the plan to injure Kerrigan without his wife finding out. At a practice in Detroit in the run up to the 1994 Olympics, a hitman named Shane Stant approached Kerrigan and hit her in the leg with a metal baton. (Harding was napping in her room at the time.) Stant fled the scene as Kerrigan - in infamous video footage of the aftermath - fell to the floor, crying "Why? Why me?"

Though Harding went on to win first place at the US Women's Championships while Kerrigan was recuperating, Kerrigan's injury healed quickly and she was able to move forward with February's Olympics. Kerrigan ended up taking home a silver medal, while the Ukrainian Oksana Baiul won gold and Harding, who broke a lace on her skate, finished eighth. Of course, that entire day was a media circus, with spectators salivating for drama between the women. The tension was palpable when Kerrigan and Harding hit the ice simultaneously to practice beside each other, but the event's most memorable moment occurred when a sobbing Harding begged the judges to let her fix her broken lace and skate again.

If destroying his ex-wife's career was, indeed, the reasoning for Gillooly's plan, it worked. On February 1 1994, he agreed to testify against Harding for a plea deal. Gillooly was sentenced to two years in prison for racketeering and ended up serving time for the assault as well. Harding pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of Gillooly, and she served three years of probation.

Both Kerrigan and Harding stopped competing after the 1994 Olympics. Harding went on to remarry twice, have children, and try various careers, including celebrity boxing. Kerrigan has stayed busy with family (she has three children) and has worked for US media. She has also spoken openly about her six miscarriages.

It's already speculated that I, Tonya may nab an Oscar for Margot Robbie, and that the hopes will be given a lift by the Winter Olympics in February. "I'm certainly curious to see how people will feel afterwards for her, in some way," Robbie said of the woman she plays. "But I think they'll also understand how damaged her past was."

Nancy Kerrigan
Nancy Kerrigan

I, Tonya will be in cinemas nationwide from February 23

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya

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