I, Tonya

I, Tonya

i’ve got two hot takes & a seemingly non-sequitur comment about Tammy Wynette, so buckle up.

i’ll preface both by saying that i really, really, really liked I, Tonya. i think Gillespie uses a smart framework for his biopic. it’s almost like a Shakespearean tragedy, setting us up to watch something when we already know the ending. why stick around when we know we’re hurling towards tragedy? instead of two star-crossed lovers, Gillespie suggests in his “prologue” that the stakes are that of fact & fiction, truth & inconsistencies, abuser & martyr. we are obligated to stick around because the trajectory of the tragedy is muddy, and maybe we can make some sense of it.

so hot take 1: Allison Janney is exceptional, but i am shocked she is sweeping the awards season. i adore her, but i would expect the conversation to be as evenly between her & Metcalf as it should’ve been between Rockwell & Dafoe. i guess i’d argue that Janney & Rockwell give the more overtly strong performances, while Metcalf & Dafoe deliver theirs with subtly, so it’s interesting to see what’s being recognized critically en masse.

and 2, which i’ll keep brief-ish: i think I, Tonya accomplishes what Three Billboards set out to do, and maybe could’ve pulled off with some more draft revisions. TBoEM stumbled because its drama and comedy balance never blended. the drama was dark, the comedy was shocking, but there was never any organic unity between the two. having such oppositional writing tones works well, i think, for the stage, where there are established beats from which to build out. in a film, though… if you don’t move past the superficiality of “haha here’s a really serious moment, followed by a joke, to undercut that serious moment, because haha i am underscoring the serious moment by detracting from it,” all you end up with IS that detraction. i know i wasn’t huge on TBoEM when i first saw it, and i know i’ve only grown to like it less, so i’ll front that bias. but i also bring it up because I, Tonya PROVES that not only can you deconstruct genre & undercut a beat within the same scene & be brutal — you can also do it well. this is a true drama-comedy, where the “comedy” is authentic to the characters and to the scene, and thus to the holistic film. the “comedy” is stylistic, but it is not a novelty. the “comedy” really wasn’t even that funny for me, but i appreciated it, because never once did i feel like the audience was being asked to laugh at the abuse or at the characters (save for maybe the bodyguard, but like. fuck that guy.) so, in short: thank you, I, Tonya, for restoring my faith in deconstructing genre.

but now i have to mention Tammy Wynette, who was a singer-songwriter from Mississippi. she was known as “The First Lady of Country Music.”

Wynette was told by her first husband that she was never going to make it as a musician. when she said she wanted to be a country star, he told her, “Dream on, baby.” she left him. and then years later, after she did make it big, her first husband asked for her autograph. and you fucking believe she signed it, “Dream on, baby.”

Margot Robbie embodies all of that as Tonya: she embodies the passion, but also the “Dream on, baby” fuck you-ness that is direct at her mother, her husband, the world, her fans, us. she is is a tragic mix of nature and nurture: she’s a willful person; a victim; an actor; and above almost everything else, a skater. Robbie consumed every scene she was in. this film professes its neutrality in the beginning by citing its sources of conflicting interviews, but i’unno. on one hand, i think its sympathies with Tonya are almost implicit. but on the other hand, i’m not sure how much of that is Robbie really just being human. Tonya is good. Tonya is fierce. Tonya was loved briefly and abandoned quickly. Tonya is complicated. Tonya is a character in a movie, which means she is to some degree fictionalized. Tonya is a real person, and she’s America’s redneck, and she is a real part of America that is also cruel. Tonya isn’t just one thing, and neither is her film.

from the outset, we know this will end in devastation; or at least, pop culture assumes the role of history teacher, and it’s taken for granted that we’re supposed to know that Tonya is banned from skating. we’re supposed to know that Nancy Kerrigan is the real martyr. and then we are asked, relentlessly and repeatedly, whether we have room in our hearts for Tonya as a different kind of victim, too. what is perhaps most compelling to me, though, is that this film demands something of us in exchange for our entertainment. we’re not explicitly punished for laughing at the comedy — again, the comedy does not deliver on a beat that’s at anyone else’s expense. we’re not explicitly punished for looking on in awe at Tonya — the actual footage of Tonya skating at the end was captivating, but it’s been shown/watched over and over before. but we are made to question just what exactly we find entertaining in the first place: every time Tonya is hit, either by her family or by a boxer or by the flash of a camera, we ask that to happen by investigating her history. and yes, we have a responsibility to know her history, even if it’s an unclear one. but i guess what i’m trying to get at is this: who are we when we watch this? are we cheering for a skater now? were we once telling her to “Dream on, baby?” are we granted so much nuance as this film premises its characters? i’m not sure. what i am sure of, though, is that none of us are there attempting & landing those triple axels. my god.

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