I, TONYA (At the Multiplex: February, 2018)

I, Tonya
D. Craig Gillespie

I, Tonya is the best trailer park movie since Freeway (1996), which came out two decades ago, starred a young Reese Witherspoon, and scared the bejesus out of the seven people who saw it.

Like Freeway, I Tonya features a fierce, petite blonde with a crappy, violent home life trying to transcend her surroundings.

Unlike Freeway, which made a mockery of concepts like Academy Awards or Golden Globes, I Tonya carries no trace of art, even in the acting. But the craft is superb, especially in the acting. The nominations have poured in.

Both films were made in a spirit of condescension toward their central characters and their respective milieus. Both films pretend otherwise, in that smug, painfully sincere way only the best Liberals can manage to sustain for the length of a pitch meeting, let alone a full shoot.

I didn’t grow up in a trailer park. But I was born in one and I lived close enough to some others to know how hard it is for anyone to either escape or avoid noticing when someone is looking down their nose. In this sense I, Tonya‘s craft has Freeway‘s crazy art beat: It’s poignant in spite of itself–poignant because the memory of the real life Tonya Harding washes over the entire enterprise. Anyone who wasn’t a skate fanatic at the time (early nineties) will learn a lot from this movie and I don’t just mean facts. Nothing about her inner workings, mind you–Margot Robbie’s superb impersonation is all on the surface. Not for nothing has it been compared to movies like Goodfellas and To Die For, which also lived on surfaces no sane person would want to touch anywhere outside of a movie.

But, unlike the “real life” characters at the heart of those films, Harding is someone a sane person can sympathize with. The movie doesn’t really answer–or, to its credit, try to answer–what she knew about her not-very-bright boyfriend arranging an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan and when she knew it. It does give a sense of why she might not have considered such an event the worst thing in the world. And it makes it possible for you to feel the same–not, I confess, a feeling I ever wanted to have, even though I rooted for Harding in the skating rivalry and always hoped she didn’t have anything to do with the attack.

I guess the best thing the movie does for someone like me–a casual fan with a class-oriented rooting interest but no major investment–is fudge the line between that interest and an acceptance that, for Harding, there was no easy way out. She was trying to revolutionize her sport because it was the only chance she had of winning big. No trailer park kid who made her own costumes because no one around her could afford to buy anything off the rack, let alone have it designed and custom made, was ever going to crack the snobbish code that rules ladies’ figure skating by merely skating better. Once you realize that–and one of the movie’s few weaknesses is that it cracks you over the head with the point again and again, perhaps thinking the intended audience would be too dense to pick up on any subtleties (and given the nervous is-this-a-joke-too? laughter in the theater when the closing credits informed us that Harding wants to be known as a good mother, the filmmakers may not have been wrong)–it becomes possible to see Tonya Harding as something I half-suspected all along. A bigger victim than Nancy Kerrigan.

Besides all that (and ten times as many “fucks” as you ever heard in a real trailer park before Hollywood moved in and showed everyone how to do it), there are some real laughs.

And, at the very end, at least a small sense of what it’s like to master your sport–to be the best at something even for a single, fleeting moment.

That’s a lot more than nothing, maybe even enough to be worth the price of the ticket.

It’s just that I wish the movie had caught the heart that was forever showing on Tonya Harding’s tough little face back when she was within an inch of breaking free from the trap the Cosmos had planned for her. Instead, it settles for cleverness, for always pulling the punch at the last second, striving only to entertain us at the expense of demanding that we feel something that will last past the parking lot.

Perhaps some day, someone will make an epic trailer park movie that neither panders nor romanticizes. I, Tonya isn’t quite it. But it’s good enough, and conventional enough (that Oscar ought to just about fit Allison Janney’s lived-in performance as Harding’s hard-case mother), that I can imagine someone coming along in the next ten or twenty years and learning from its mistakes.

Who knows, maybe they won’t even have to resort to parodying someone who lived in the real world and took every hard knock it had to give without backing up an inch or crying over spilt milk. Maybe they’ll just imagine it.


Are we having fun yet?…Actually, this decade was better than I thought…at least at the top.

At least if you don’t bring none of them boring old morals into it.

Still dreading the post-millennium.

1990 The Grifters (Stephen Frears) (and what a way to open a Decade of Decline!…over Bad Influence, Metropolitan and Pump Up the Volume)

1991 The Doors (Oliver Stone) (over Robin Hood (Patrick Bergin version), JFK (Oliver Stone’s one good year!) and Point Break (still Kathryn Bigelow’s best)

1992 The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson) (over One False Move and The Player)


1993 Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell) (over Schindler’s List, The Fugitive, Groundhog Day, Matinee and The Wrong Man)

1994 Fresh (Boaz Yakin) (over Barcelona and Ed Wood (Tim Burton’s best…by miles))

1995 To Die For (Gus Van Sant) (over Mighty Aphrodite, Sense and Sensibility and Toy Story)

1996 Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders) (over Freeway, Jerry McGuire and That Thing You Do)

1997 Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson) (over Grosse Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown and The Peacemaker)

1998 A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis) (over Shakespeare in Love, Croupier and The Mask of Zorro)

1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella) (over Ride With the Devil and, by the thinnest of margins, Dick…if only because “the nineties” was not a decade that deserved to die laughing)

Next, the new millennium…feel my heart go pitter-patter.

ONE COUNTRY? (Segue of the Day: 11/18/16)

Well, time for a little journey…

First, here’s a link to a list of recommended movies posted at (estimable blogger and resident New Yorker) Sheila O’Malley’s place (I’ll get to the significance of this in a bit):

2016 Movies To See

Next, a tweet from a despondent Mark Harris (estimable film critic/historian and also resident–and native–New Yorker) from Nov. 9:

“Every day, I’m exposed to people of different races, classes, and ethnicities. So is any New Yorker who has ever been on a subway.”

And, finally, a quote from Cali-raised Matthew Bright, director of Freeway, a 1996 movie starring New Orleans born, Nashville raised, pre-stardom Reese Witherspoon, on the DVD commentary track, (re: a long kiss between Witherspoon and her black co-star, Bokeem Woodbine):

“I’m a big fan of screen kisses and there was no way I could make a movie without a great screen kiss, and here is my contribution to the screen kiss. Here we go….It’s comin’…Oh, now it’s the exchange of gifts….She’s so happy….And here it is….Young love….Reese is from the South, too!….I hope she doesn’t take any heat back home!”


Leaving Sheila aside (she’s simply putting out a list of good movies to see, though it ties in indirectly with the main point here), one sometimes wonders if the Yanks ever realize it’s not 1963 anymore.

Oh, I suppose in some ways it is, simply because some things never change anywhere, but the modern South imagined by Bright and at least implied by Harris (even though he’s including the rust belt as well) has changed a great deal.

Harris’s tweet was part of a series on his twitter feed where he seemed to be attempting some kind of defense/explanation of why a place like New York voted massively for Clinton and so much of the rest of the county did not. He was apparently responding to accusations that people like him (a gay New Yorker who writes about Hollywood and is married to a famous playwright) “live in a bubble,” i.e., are out of touch with “reality.” But his response was curious. He clearly thinks being “exposed to people of different races, classes, ethnicites” on the New York subway system is an experience that both lifts him out of “the bubble” and places him in a more worldly context than the hicks in the sticks–who are thereby confined to a bubble of their own–can possibly imagine.

Which would be a fine defense/analysis of Harris’s point if it were true.

But if I want to be exposed to all those different types, and many more besides, I don’t need to descend into a New York subway terminal (where, hick though I be, I have ventured a time or two, all by my lonesome, no less). I  just need to drive to a mall in Tallahassee, Florida or Dothan, Alabama, or, I imagine, pretty much anywhere in America. Neither Harris nor anyone else is absolved of “living in a bubble” because he has walked the big, bad streets of the city where he was born. And I’m not saying that he does live in a bubble, just that the example he chose to prove he doesn’t proves nothing.

Which makes me wonder. Does he?

I’ll stay tuned.

I don’t think there’s much chance Matthew Bright doesn’t live in some kind of bubble as it seems he’s spent his entire adult life involved with Hollywood one way or another. (I’m not entirely sure, because his internet bio is sketchy beyond his being a lifelong friend of famous film composer Danny Elfman and his brother, which doesn’t exactly improve his “just folks” cred.)

Based on that one comment I quoted above, I’d say he’s lived a very sheltered life indeed. Those malls I mentioned feature plenty of interracial couples and have done since at least the eighties, by which time they had long ceased to turn heads.

And Reese Witherspoon has never taken “heat” for an interracial kiss. Her star waned when she had a drunk driving incident that involved her verbally baiting a cop on video, but her career lost momentum long before. when the producers of Sweet Home Alabama failed to pony up for the rights to Skynyrd’s version of the title track and went with Jewel (yes, Jewel!) instead. Believe me, I was in the theater the weekend it opened and an audience that was ready to erupt (the movie had been entertaining) went flat as a pancake when the riff they had been set up to hear for the last hour and a half didn’t come out of the speakers and Jewel came out instead. The movie was a decent-sized hit, but whoever made that decision gave up a hundred million profit and the chance to turn Reese into a superstar who could guarantee box office for a generation. Never let them tell you Hollywood is all about money. Sometimes it’s about stupid.

Short version of all of the above: Some a’ ya’ll need to get out more.

Which brings me back to Sheila’s post.

I live next door to a mid-size college town in the Florida Panhandle. That college has a first rate film and drama school that has produced its share of both major stars (Burt Reynolds, Robert Urich,) and character actors, plus behind the scenes folks, etc.

Of the forty movies Sheila is recommending, three are streaming/TV (O.J.: Made in America being the most famous). Of the remaining thirty-seven, exactly four have played in my market (or anywhere nearby…this is the big market for two and a half hours in any direction).

Of course, it’s possible (now or in the future) to track the rest down on DVD, but who will do that who is not already a dedicated film fan with a sizable entertainment budget and/or a very well stocked local library?

One country?

Not quite, and in, oh, so many ways. But then, what country really is?

If you really want it to be one country–as much as any country can be–remaining willfully ignorant of all the places you don’t live, in the manner of Harris or Bright, probably ain’t the way.

[NOTE: For the record…Harris’s Five Came Back is one of the finest books ever written about either Hollywood or World War II. I reviewed it at length here. Bright’s Freeway is a mind-bender and Witherspoon gave the kind of scarifying performance that has to be seen to be believed and then basically covered up and swept under the rug for anything like stardom to remain attainable. Bridging the gap was either her biggest success or her biggest failure, depending on whether we, the grasping audience, value her happiness/sanity or ours. There’s room for argument there. We all contain multitudes.]

Here’s to that one country, still out there, waiting….

(With apologies that the version I heard sung and accompanied by an acoustic guitar, coming from a dorm window in the early, pre-dawn hours of May 4th, 1998, on the campus of Kent State University, is available only to the memory of those present for the occasion.)