When I moved a few months ago I found a box of VHS tapes deep in my closet, and on one of them had been taped the 1994 NBC Movie of the Week TONYA & NANCY: THE INSIDE STORY. I offer no explanation except that Elm Street’s own Nancy, Heather Langenkamp, plays Kerrigan. Anyway, I set it aside to watch after I, TONYA.
And when I did I was surprised to find how much the two biopics, made 23 years apart, have in common. Of course they hit many of the same famous moments and details, but also they both seem very self conscious about seeming exploitative and therefore attempt to elevate the material with a playful style involving mock interviews and contradictory viewpoints. Some of the scenes, like Tonya being chased by her stepbrother, her father leaving or the first time she meets Jeff Gillooly have weirdly similar staging. Both movies flash forward to Nancy screaming “Why?” early on and then take their time showing Harding’s life leading up to the attack (though this one does have scenes just about Kerrigan).
Both movies have a similar view of Tonya: her dad taught her boy things (shooting guns, shooting pool, fixing engines), her mom abused her, her step brother abused her, her husband abused her, she got swept up and either didn’t know or didn’t fully understand what these guys were doing on her behalf. Would you believe that both movies have a part where the fourth wall is broken to directly accuse the viewer of contributing to the abuse and exploitation of Tonya Harding? In this one it doesn’t come from the actor playing Harding, it comes from the actor playing the screenwriter of the TV movie!
So it was a movie of the week, let’s see what was going on that last week of April, 1994. On Tuesday, voting began for the first ever multi-racial elections in South Africa. On Wednesday, Richard Nixon was buried. On Thursday, CIA agent Aldrich Ames pleaded guilty to spying for the Soviet Union. On Friday, NO ESCAPE starring Ray Liotta shot to the top of the box office. And on Saturday at 8 pm this aired against THE JERK on ABC, Dr. Quinnn, Medicine Woman on CBS and Cops/America’s Most Wanted on Fox. I still got the commercials on the tape so I know that Joey Lawrence’s brothers were about to guest star on Blossom and Naomi Judd and George Clooney on Sisters and Charlton Heston on Seaquest DSV. CAPE FEAR and THELMA AND LOUISE were about to make their network premieres. And they expected viewers of this movie to be interested in Dexatrim and Slim-Fast.
Most telling: a commercial for the local King 5 news promises “At eleven: life for Tonya Harding now that the skating scandal hype has faded.” Whoops. I guess they were a little late. But man, the attack happened in January, the Olympics in February, Harding pleading guilty in March, and this was April. It was all over faster than it seemed like at the time.
The movie is directed by Larry Shaw (NURSES ON THE LINE: THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 7, SHE STOOD ALONE: THE TAILHOOK SCANDAL, JACKIE, ETHEL, JOAN: THE WOMEN OF CAMELOT) but I gotta assume the real authorial voice is writer Phil Penningroth, since he gives the first lines of the movie to the “Screenplay Writer” character played by Ron Silver lookalike Dennis Boutsikaris (THE EXTERMINATOR, Paul Wolfowitz in W., the principal in MY SOUL TO TAKE), who is seen typing the screenplay and then turns to us and talks to us about his thoughts on the whole thing.
Penningroth seems very intent on proving that he’s not just some guy who writes exploitative TV movies, although yes, he did write AMY FISHER: MY STORY (the one that didn’t star Alyssa Milano or Drew Barrymore) and IN THE LINE OF DUTY: AMBUSH IN WACO and, sure, also THE BABYMAKER: THE DR. CECIL JACOBSON STORY, about a fertility doctor who was secretly loading his clients with his own sperm. But I mean, does a mere writer of sleazy ripped-from-the-headlines TV movies write something this meta? I DON’T THINK SO.
He made himself the host of the movie, his character thinking out loud about it, explaining its themes as he’s supposed to be writing it. He makes smart-comments-for-dumb-people like comparing the skaters’ lives to an unspecified fairy tale, or asking “I wonder what Tolstoy would’ve thought of Tonya’s life.”
Fuck this guy.
In a section bemusedly talking about the media frenzy, Penningroth shows the sleazy executives at some made up network… oh shit, I mean at NBC, cynically planning their TV movie. They agree that they should use the public record instead of paying for the rights, but Screenplay Writer still doesn’t know what the approach should be.
“Let’s try to find some way to elevate this,” says one of the executives. Great idea! Later, in one of the fake interviews that fake elevate it, she says “If we could get it on during May sweeps, get it on first, the ratings were going to be enormous.”
Were they, though? If I’m reading these ratings right then the movie got beat by the new episode of Dr. Quinn (“The Abduction”). Tough luck, Network Executive (Carlyle King, voice of a sheep in BABE.)
I should explain that the fake interviews are approached differently than in I, TONYA. Hardigan and Gillooly aren’t interviewed, but Tonya’s mom (played by Webster‘s mom) and dad and coach are. Mostly the interviews are generically named types representing the viewpoints of different professions and communities: “Harding Supporter,” “Abuse Survivor,” “’60s Activist,” “Running Back,” etc. “Former Skater” laments how hard the athletes have it now that so much money is involved. Late in the movie “Newspaper Editor” talks regretfully about the print media unethically extending the scandal for profit. He gets a little choked up as he says “We’re all whores” and looks down sadly. Keep in mind, in I, TONYA they’re looking back on the story with decades of reflection, this guy has had a couple weeks.
It would be funny if Penningroth was pulling an ADAPTATION, he’s like “Fuck this, I can’t write this shit” and “I’ll show these fucking assholes, I’ll put a scene in there about them deciding to make this garbage” and instead of THE END or FADE TO BLACK he writes EAT SHIT at the end. But then he turns it in and the executives just skim through it in like two minutes and say “Perfect. Don’t change a word. Airs in one month.” So it stays in.
But it’s more likely that he just believed that old urban legend that if you point out you’re doing something shitty it doesn’t count as doing something shitty. Or, as negative reviews in both The Washington Post and the L.A. Times theorized, he was trying to copy Michael Ritchie’s THE POSITIVELY TRUE ADVENTURE OF THE ALLEGED TEXAS CHEERLEADER-MURDERING MOM, which had aired a year earlier on HBO and won a Golden Globe.
Alexandra Powers (SONNY BOY, LAST MAN STANDING) plays Harding and I think she’s pretty good, though not as funny or sympathetic as Robbie. The TV movie version of Gillooly (James Wilder, Melrose Place, Models Inc.) is, not surprisingly, a bigger piece of shit than the big screen version. Maybe we don’t see him hit her as graphically, but he’s more transparently manipulative and jealous and quizzes her on how to spell his name and shit. Ice skating seems to be on TV at all times and if she’s interviewed he sees it live and gets mad.
Wilder, by the way, has an 850 word IMDb bio that calls him an “actor/architect/designer” who is “juggling artistic mediums like the three running chainsaws that earned him notoriety on the streets of New York and Los Angeles.” I thought that was worth mentioning.
Langenkamp is very good and likable as Kerrigan. Though the movie is dominated by Harding, the scenes about Kerrigan are nice to her without entirely painting her as the perfect ice princess. They emphasize the class differences between the skaters’ families, but they also make a point of showing that like Tonya, Nancy has a tomboy side – she only got into ice skating because she wanted to play hockey. She’s under tremendous pressure and being pushed by a sleazy agent (Charley Lang) to “embrace the opportunity” of having been assaulted.
“Believe me, I know it may seem a little… cynical to capitalize on what happened to you. But hey, we live in a cynical world!”
The I, TONYA similarity that I wonder about most is in the portrayal of Shawn Eckhardt (or Eckardt – there seem to be different spellings), Harding’s bodyguard and mastermind of the clubbing. Here he’s played by Dan Schneider, a.k.a. Dennis from Head of the Class. He’s a manchild who lives with his mom, working out of an office/bedroom that has a basketball hoop and a bunch of street signs and pictures of guns on the wall. They get the same type of comedy as I, TONYA out of him, strutting around in sunglasses holding a briefcase and talking about his “operatives” and shit, trying to impress everybody with this blatant horseshit that he’s some Jason Bourne guy or something. I don’t know, maybe this is what the real guy was like, but I couldn’t find much information on him outside of one Diane Sawyer interview where he’s obviously full of himself but doesn’t go too over the top with the spy shit.
I don’t know what’s funnier: the idea that a 2017 Oscar contender could’ve gotten ideas from a 1994 quickie TV movie, or that they sincerely tried to re-evaluate the whole thing from a modern perspective, but came up with kind of the same thing that the TV movie factory did less than four months after the attack.
I mean, I, TONYA is obviously better executed, there’s more depth to it, more emotion, the gimmicks are way more tolerable, it’s more complex. Still, it was interesting to me to find this evidence that just a few months after it happened people were already saying “Hey, maybe we were too hard on this young lady, maybe we don’t know what really happened, and jesus didn’t we all get out of hand on this whole thing?