‘I, Tonya’ Reexamines One of America's Biggest Sports Scandals

15 December, 2017

Not long ago, Steven Rogers was watching a film documentary about Tonya Harding, an American figure skater in the 1990s.

As he watched the film, Rogers thought about social class, abuse, mass media and the meaning of truth -- all parts of Harding's complex story.

In early 1994, shortly before the Winter Olympics, Harding and other top figure skaters had gathered in Detroit, Michigan, for the United States championships. The placements there would decide who would join the U.S. Olympic team.

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan
Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan

One of those skaters was Nancy Kerrigan. Many people thought she had a good chance at winning the Olympic gold medal. But while Kerrigan was preparing for championships, a man attacked her. He hit her knee with a heavy club.

Harding's former husband and two men he knew were charged with planning and carrying out the attack. Harding has always denied being involved in the assault.

The American media began reporting on the incident. The Kerrigan versus Harding battle following the attack became one of the biggest sports scandals in U.S. history. And the media quickly painted Kerrigan as an American princess, and Harding as "trash."

Finding Tonya

Steven Rogers decided he wanted to know more about Harding. He looked to see if the rights to her life story were available to writers and filmmakers. They were. He then called the telephone number for her agent listed on her website. The listed phone number connected him to a motel.

"I thought: I am so in," Rogers said.

And with little more than the start of an idea, Rogers contacted both Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. He used their wildly different descriptions of what happened in 1994, and their lives leading up to it, to develop a screenplay. The play would turn into the new movie, "I, Tonya."

The film was released on December 8 in a limited number of theaters in Los Angeles and New York. It will be released more widely in January.

The film reexamines the famous incident. There is domestic violence, from both Harding's mother and ex-husband, conflicting stories and no real resolution or answers.

In the movie, Australian actress Margot Robbie plays Harding from ages 15 to 44. She also is the film's producer. Robbie asked many potential directors how they would deal with the violence that would be included in the film.

Craig Gillespie, the man who got the job, said it had to be shown in a very direct way.

"It didn't sit right with me, the idea of covering it up and making it seem not that bad," Robbie said. "Also to leave it out completely felt wrong. But Craig always finds the truth in the situation."

Robbie and Gillespie decided to try something unusual by having Harding speak directly to the camera, even as she is being beaten.

Becoming Tonya

Robbie trained and studied the real Harding for six months. She examined her figure skating movements, as well as her physicality and the way she talks.

Robbie did not meet Harding herself until after filming for the movie had ended.

"I had already decided how I was going to play this character," Robbie said. "I knew every single beat and how I would play it."

One person who is largely missing from the film is Nancy Kerrigan. That was done on purpose. Robbie says she did not want the film to become another "Tonya vs. Nancy" story.

"Since this was about Tonya Harding, the most important people and relationships in her life were with her mother and with Jeff. Those are the relationships that really shape her as a person."

Allison Janney plays Harding's mother, LaVona. She is the person who put Harding on the ice, paid for her training, and made her skating costumes with the little money she had. She also abused her daughter as a child, both with words and physical violence.

Tonya Harding has reportedly not spoken to her mother in 15 years.

Janney watched video recordings of LaVona to study her movements. She described playing the part as freeing, and the relationship between the two women as "harsh and hard and complicated."

Actor Sebastian Stan plays Gillooly, Harding's former husband.

"I was so intrigued by the story. I was slightly obsessed," Stan said. "When you're going to play someone you have to put all judgments aside."

Sebastian Stan, from left, Margot Robbie and Allison Janney arrive at the Los Angeles premiere of
Sebastian Stan, from left, Margot Robbie and Allison Janney arrive at the Los Angeles premiere of "I, Tonya" at the Egyptian Theatre on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

"I, Tonya" is a timely look at a woman who had everything against her. Yet she was able to become one of the world's best in one of the most costly sports -- although she did not look, act or sound like her competitors.

On Monday, the movie earned three Golden Globe nominations. Many observers expect Robbie and others involved in "I, Tonya" to earn Oscar nominations next year.

But beyond the critics, Tonya Harding mostly likes the film, too, Rogers says.

"It is going to be interesting to see if this movie changes anything for her. Film is a powerful medium," Rogers said.

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I'm Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

versus - preposition. used to indicate the two people, teams, etc., that are fighting or competing against each other or that are opposed to each other

scandal - n. an occurrence in which people are shocked and upset because of behavior that is morally or legally wrong

princess - n. a usually attractive girl or woman who is treated with special attention and kindness

trash- n. someone who has very low social status or who is not respected

motel- n. a place that is next to a road and that has rooms for people to stay in especially when they are traveling by car

domestic violence- n. violent or aggressive behavior within the home, typically involving the violent abuse of a spouse or partner.

potential - adj. capable of becoming real

intrigue - v. to make (someone) want to know more about something : to cause (someone) to become interested

obsess - v. to think and talk about someone or something too much