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Watch ‘I, Tonya,’ Then Watch These Movies

We recommend films to watch after the Tonya Harding biopic, besides the most obvious one.
By  · Published on January 21st, 2018

We recommend films to watch after the Tonya Harding biopic, besides the most obvious one.

The fact that I, Tonya has been sold as “Goodfellas on ice” means I don’t need to recommend Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s classic gangster film is being used to recommend the Tonya Harding biopic. So it’s already assumed that you’ve seen Goodfellas. Or at least know enough about it and realize that you should have seen it by now.

What is on the list of movies to watch this week? I’ve got the other obvious: a documentary version of the same story. Plus one of the actually acknowledged influences on its style, a classic story often cited in description of Harding’s life, and some other goodies I consider relevant to Craig Gillespie’s Oscar contender starring Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.

Pygmalion (1938)

PygmalionGeorge Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name has been adapted many times, including in its musical form as My Fair Lady. “Pygmalion,” inspired by the myth of “Pygmalion and Galatea,” is about a young cockney flower girl molded into a proper lady fit for high society by a phonetics professor. And despite the romantic possibilities, it is not supposed to have a “happy” conclusion where the main characters get together.

Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl, was originally allowed her independence from the misogynistic, controlling Professor Higgins, while also winding up with a complicated social status somewhere between her true lower class upbringing and new semblance of upper class assimilation. That ending was altered over and over on stage and screen (it was a whole thing) but this first English-language version (a German and a Dutch production precede it) did come with a compromise ending the playwright begrudgingly allowed.

How Pygmalion relates to Tonya Harding has to do with her low-class roots, the high-class facade of her sport, and the attempt to get her to fit in with the latter. In the 1986 student-film documentary Sharp Edges, focused on a pre-fame 15-year-old Harding, figure skating coach Diane Rawlinson (portrayed by Julianne Nicholson in I, Tonya) says, “Skating for Tonya is her ticket out of the gutter.” And after 60 Minutes ran that clip and others from the doc in 1994 (see below), TV producer Don Hewitt was quoted in the New York Times as stating, “It was ‘Pygmalion,’ Diane and Dennis Rawlinson were Henry Higgins.” Harding was, of course, Eliza.

Continuing the reference that same year, Frank Coffey and Joe Layden’s book “Thin Ice: The Complete, Uncensored Story of Tonya Harding” includes the following:

“Diane was playing ‘Pygmalion’ to Tonya’s Eliza Doolittle. She would take the street urchin with the legs of steel and the heart of a champion and give her a velvet sheen. She would make her more presentable, help her fit neatly into the stuffy skating community. That was the idea.”

Of course, Harding never did truly fit in, and Robbie’s portrayal of the disgraced Olympian has that ever-crass Doolittle charm. She also, like the true Eliza, wound up independent in the end but also found herself in a confused social state, not just between levels of class but also between lines of fame and infamy.


Caddyshack (1980)

CaddyshackHarding’s working-class trailer park origins and rise in the sport of princesses should have been sold as a “Cinderella” story, but instead she was given the “slobs vs. snobs” narrative because of her difficulty and unwillingness to fully assimilate with that “stuffy skating community.” She was a real-life version of the crass Rodney Dangerfield character clashing with the prim Country Club crowd in Caddyshack.

Not that she was nouveau riche, and Dangerfield’s Al Czervik wasn’t playing golf competitively, but Harding similarly contrasted against the social conventions of her own sport. She never actually said “suck my dick” as Robbie’s incarnation does in I, Tonya, but she wishes she had and wasn’t one to hold back on such profanity. That was her reputation, noted in a 1992 Sports Illustrated profile (“[she ] can curse like a sailor, bench-presses more than her weight, and drag races in the summer for kicks”), and part of her rebellious attitude.

Caddyshack was hardly the first movie to have a character like Czervik, though Dangerfield certainly exhibited his own brand of brash behavior. Stories of the unrefined mixing it up in high society are as old as class differences themselves, but some others of note include the 1930s films The Social Lion and The Kid from Texas, both of which see rougher-edged men (the former a boxer, the latter a cowboy) entering the fancy world of polo, as well as countless rags-to-riches movies, particularly Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Of course, there’s also the ill-fit hockey player-turned-figure-skater rom-dram The Cutting Edge and the ill-fit hockey player-turned-golfer comedy Happy Gilmore.


Mommie Dearest (1981)

LookawfulOne of the most criticized elements of I, Tonya — or perhaps it’s just the reception of the movie by some audiences and definitely awards organizations — is the idea of domestic abuse being fodder for comedy. True, neither child abuse nor spousal abuse is amusing, and certainly the movie addresses the issue of how people have treated and continue to treat and respond to Harding’s story.

Most of the laughs come whenever Janney is on screen as Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden, not when she’s throwing a steak knife at the girl or hitting her with a hairbrush or otherwise physically harming her daughter but when she’s verbally abusing her and swearing up a storm in the faux-doc interview bits. Cursing is funny, don’t you know, but also the mirth stems from disbelief and discomfort with the reality of this character.

Janney isn’t exactly hamming up the role unauthentically, but the seemed exaggeration viewed as humorous (the ridiculous bird-on-shoulder thing doesn’t help) makes me think of Faye Dunaway’s performance in Mommie Dearest. The actress hadn’t intended to come across as comedic, but portraying the real larger-than-life personality of Hollywood icon Joan Crawford as an impossibly abusive mother has to have been difficult to represent in a grounded fashion.


Rocky IV (1985)

Rocky Training Montage“This is how Rocky trained when he had to fight the Russian,” Robbie’s Harding says in I, Tonya, breaking the fourth wall, “and it worked.” Nicholson as Rawlinson, also to the camera, adds: “She actually did this.” For those in the audience who don’t get the reference, the fourth installment of the Rocky franchise saw Sylvester Stallone’s titular boxer go up against the lethally strong Soviet opponent Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).

During a montage sequence showing contrast between the two fighters’ trainings, we see Rocky in Russia preparing with more natural and practical methods, like log throwing and sled pulling. In I, Tonya, during her own training montage, Harding carries bags of dog food and similarly lifts logs. “And this,” Rawlinson adds.

Recommending Rocky IV isn’t just about that analogy, though. In the sequel, Rocky is once again an underdog entering an arena where he doesn’t seem to fit in. That’s where the Rocky series began, with a poor, working-class character getting a long-shot chance at glory — and like Harding, he didn’t win. Interestingly enough, in Harding’s last attempt at Olympic glory it was a Soviet-born athlete (Oksana Baiul) who took the Gold.


Attack of the 5 Ft. 2 In. Women (1994)

TonyahardlyHarding’s scandal was spoofed so much over the years (another reason it’s hard for people not to accept I, Tonya as a comedy), especially in the 1990s, but one stands out in memory among the best. Julie Brown, a comedienne specializing in mocking celebrities, starred in a National Lampoon-presented double-feature film for Showtime where she parodied the Harding story alongside a spoof of the John and Lorena Bobbitt incident.

The Harding half is titled “Tonya: The Battle of Wounded Knee” and is definitely as silly as can be. Brown plays “Tonya Hardly, the “cutest, sexiest, bestest skater in the history of the Universe,” who will do anything to win, including hiring someone to eliminate her strongest rival, “Nancy Cardigan.” The segment includes a music video (seen below) for one of Brown’s signature comedy songs, “Queen of the Ice,” which not only features LaVona portrayed in her fur coat with a parrot sidekick but has “Hardly” shoot the bird off her shoulder.


To Die For (1995)

TodieforInstead of putting Goodfellas on the list, here’s another movie with Illeana Douglas, and she happens to play a figure skater. But that’s not why To Die For is recommended. I had initially planned on including the 2014 documentary Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, because Pamela Smart reminds me of Harding in her interviews, maintaining innocence in the case of her husband’s murder and criticizing the media and its consumers’ manner of assuming guilt in stories like hers. She’s also the inspiration for Nicole Kidman’s character here.

While the true-crime story was already depicted in the TV movie Murder in New Hampshire and inspired an episode of Law & Order, Smart’s case was also heavily fictionalized in Joynce Maynard’s novel “To Die For,” which was adapted into this Gus Van Sant movie. Kidman brilliantly plays an aspiring broadcast journalist who manages to manipulate some teen interns (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, and Alison Folland), one of whom she’s having an affair with, to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The movie similarly features faux-doc interviews, and Gillespie has admitted to looking at To Die For in prep for the Harding biopic. To Vice:

“They use interviews to retell the story, but it’s very linear and everyone’s telling the same story. This film contains contradictory versions of what’s happening, and there’s a very dark side to this story too: the domestic violence, and the emotional and violent upbringing she had.”

But to Film Journal International, he also acknowledged how it gave way to the Scorsese influence:

“I hadn’t read a script in this format before. I tried to find references, and the best I could do was ‘To Die For’—and even that film is much more subdued. But the best reference I could find in terms of some rapid-fire scenes was ‘Goodfellas’—just for sections—but this was our whole film.”

So, yes, all the comparisons to Goodfellas are justified, and it’s worth pointing out that Scorsese followed his own mold somewhat for The Wolf of Wall Street (actually his 1964 short It’s Not Just You, Murray! started it all), which is the movie that gave Robbie her breakout role.


Tabloid (2010)

TabloidIn my review of Captivated, which I do still also recommend because it’s one of the best true-crime docs in years, I compare Smart not only to Harding but also to Joyce McKinney, subject of this Errol Morris documentary recounting the sensational tale of her allegedly kidnapping and raping an ex-boyfriend in 1977. Morris also made the greatest true-crime doc of all time, The Thin Blue Line, which like I, TonyaCaptivated, and to some degree Tabloid, deals with how perspectives filter events.

McKinney wound up unsuccessfully suing Morris over her portrayal in the documentary, partly because she loves attention, but she also took understandable offense — even if complacently encouraged by her own apparent narcissism — at the tone of the film allowing for so much mockery of her character and side of the story. And it wasn’t just Morris whom she tried to reprimand. At one screening of the film I attended, McKinney appeared at the end and berated the whole audience for laughing at her.

I was reminded of that incident during the part of I, Tonya where Robbie-as-Harding scolds viewers in the audience for being part of the problem, mainly when it all went down but also now as we’re amusedly watching the film.

“Then I was a punch line. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”

You can see McKinney’s post-screening scolding for yourself here.


The Price of Gold (2014)

XycFinally, here’s the doc option for Harding’s story. Made as an installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nanette Burstein, The Price of Gold took the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the scandal to revisit the whole story, with particular allowance for Harding herself to defend her side.

Like I, Tonya, the documentary empathetically presents the events as a tragedy for the disgraced skater, with Harding coming across as the real victim more so than Nancy Kerrigan. Not that it totally sides with Harding or makes a case for her absolute, if any, innocence in the crime, but it gives the woman enough of a platform for her to speak for herself (sometimes without it helping her) and focuses more on the complexity of her part in what the media had run as a simple but sensational tale of an athletic rivalry.

In some ways, I, Tonya seems like a dramatic remake of the documentary. Or they’re at least complimentary, similar to the pairing of the limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and the lengthy Oscar-winning 30 for 30 installment O.J.: Made in America. All together, they make for a great quadruple feature of 1994-set true-crime stories explored to their fullest.


Bonus: Sharp Edges (1986)

I’ve already mentioned it above, but I would like to recommend this early Harding documentary. Alas, it’s not actually available in full right now. Its director, Sandra Luckow, is trying to find a distributor for the film, which has been mined for footage for other docs and news stories but rarely seen in its entirety.

For now, here’s a Facebook post stating the goal and sharing a recent ABC news special featuring some clips:


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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.