Don’t Ever Get Married: The Purple Rain Mantra Applies to Tonya Harding Biopic I, Tonya

As The Kid’s father (a.k.a. “Francis L.”), warned him in Purple Rain, “Don’t ever get married.” Or at least don’t let someone’s abusive form of “love” lead you to lose sight of a goal you’ve worked your entire life toward. That’s the hardest lesson any woman starved for affection and appreciation can learn, and it’s one that Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) has had to pay for dearly for most of her adult life. To those who didn’t live through it, Harding still remains the butt of running jokes about rivalry and female harpydom when it comes to competition. For the first time, however, there is a piece of “propaganda” on Harding’s side, one that, at the very least seeks to humanize the woman behind the media vilification. And even if she did have a greater hand in it than she might have admitted (though, as it’s said in the film, “What kind of person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?”–because, yes, the two were “friendly” while on the circuit together), there can be no denying the true villain of the narrative: Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

And, speaking of blame for “the incident,” while watching the credits roll to the sight of the real Tonya showing off her talents, a poseur female moviegoer who probably only glommed onto the Tonya thing around the time a museum devoted to her opened in Brooklyn remarks, “I always thought she was the one who did it.” And here, again, the point Tonya makes at the conclusion of the film rings true: “There’s no such thing as truth.” People–especially American people–always believe what they want to. For those who see Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) as an angelic victim, there is no convincing them of any truth other than Harding being the bottom line culprit. And for those who value an underdog, Harding continues to be a talisman.

Objectively, Harding was an underdog–born in Portland, OR way before the so-called dream of the 90s was alive there, she spent what little part of her youth she had a father (before he abandoned her, always the surefire way to fuck up a girl about her dating choices later on in life) drag racing, shooting game and learning the basic skills of being a mechanic. At that time, Portland was at peak white trash non-glory, with no “Keep Portland Weird” mantra to buttress much of an artistic community. Luckily, Tonya found some form of art in figure skating, prompting her verbally and physically abusive mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), to take her, at the age of a “soft four,” to Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), ultimately Harding’s ice skating coach before being replaced by Dody Teachman (Bojana Novakovic). So it began that LaVona was able to lord over her for the rest of her life that she donated every penny from her waitressing job to the cause of Tonya’s career.

But it seemed the universe wanted to vary up the abuser options for Tonya in 1985. At fifteen years old, Tonya’s entire world up until that point had been devoted to skating and competing. Enter Jeff Gillooly, the mustachioed dark stranger–with Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) at his side, naturally–who was “bold” enough to ignore her lack of standard “feminine grace” and ask her out. It was possibly the novelty of being worshipped (to use overstatement) that led Tonya to marry him at nineteen–the wedding during which LaVona balks, “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb.” But LaVona seemed to have many ideas about the lack of use of men unless they were “gardeners.” To elaborate, while accompanying Tonya and Jeff on their first date, LaVona demands of him, “In every relationship, there’s a gardener and a flower. Which are you? I’m a gardener who wants to be a flower. How fucked am I?” Now one sees where Tonya gets her sense of what many have painted as self-victimization.

What Tonya’s mother would call being a “graceless bull dyke” was also what affected the average frou frou ice skating judge’s assessment of her incredible form. And yes, the proverbial “they” says: be so good that they can’t ignore you. But, time and time again, Tonya’s talent was ignored because she wasn’t able to fit in the conventional mold of the prim, icy (pun intended) aura of a female skater, deigning to sew her own costumes and perform to ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag” (no joke, it really happened–this wasn’t just a scene stylized for filmic purposes).

Allison Janney, no stranger to playing the white trash matriarchal role if you’ll remember her in Drop Dead Gorgeous, manages to somehow imbue Harding’s mother with shreds of occasional humanity via director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers’ (who, by the way, wrote the script on spec if that’s motivational to any of you) combined grasp for the sardonic. Like all tragedies, the duo is able to find plenty of the comedic in the stranger than fiction tale of Harding. Particularly when Harding randomly interjects during the narrative to say, “Can I just say one thing about Nancy?” And, during a decade when twenty-four hour news coverage was becoming a capitalized upon industry, the media wanted nothing more than to hear what Tonya might have to say about Nancy. With Bobby Cannavale playing a producer for Hard Copy (which, at the very least, you should remember for being parodied in a key moment in the plot of Dumb and Dumber), audiences who don’t quite recall the lauding of trash culture in the 90s–including, but not limited to, “talk shows” hosted by Sally Jessy Raphael and Jerry Springer–are briefed on just how thirsty for scandal America was (still is, too).

And Tonya was the perfect fodder for providing that scandal at the beginning of 1994. Risen from the ashes after placing fourth in the 1992 U.S. Winter Olympics (it was an ill-fated fluke that there was one just two years later instead of four, allowing her to attempt to win the gold again), her relationship with Gillooly had resulted in divorce in 1993. But, just as is the case with most heartbreaking characters, Tonya’s primary fatal flaw is looking to the wrong people for love–which is why she told Jeff that she didn’t think she could compete without him for emotional support. In the end, of course, had she believed in her own talents enough without turning to others for approval, she might never have been barred for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association (a judge ruling that makes for one of the most tear-jerking, Oscar-baiting moments of the film).

In the wake of it all, Tonya ruminates, “I was loved. Then I was hated. And now it’s a punchline.” At one point, things get very uncomfortable for the viewer, ourselves perpetuating the cycle of tabloid-oriented obsession for the toppling of famous people off their pedestal as she states, “I thought being famous would be great. But it was like being abused all over again. You are all my abusers.”

On that note, we see a semi-present day Tonya in 2003, when she’s turned to boxing as her new sport in order to “pay the bills.” Match cut with scenes of Tonya at her zenith–when being the first female to successfully complete two triple Axels with a double toe loop–there is something remarkably sorrowful about watching her literally fall to the ground.

Perhaps the only vindication the real Tonya can feel now is seeing the film version of Jeff Gillooly admit, “I was responsible for ruining her career.” Though it might be too little, too late, at least I, Tonya lends a touch of empathy to one of the most reviled figures in sports history.