Portlanders have a complex relationship with Tonya Harding. Like your racist uncle or your commune-dwelling sister-in-law who wears crystals and thinks she’s a witch, we are torn between embarrassment to have any connection with such a lunatic and just enough remaining affection that we find ourselves unable to disown her. She is still our most famous hometown Olympian. That spectacular triple axel remains one of the great game-changing moments in sports history. She was an absolute beast on the ice – raw, scrappy, tough, fearless, one hell of a jumper, and insanely strong. There was so much to root for. But of course, that’s not what anyone thinks of when they hear her name. Not even me, if I’m honest. No, instead of celebrating the Olympic gold medal of a local girl who trained on the same ice skating rink where every girl in my class had our birthday parties, we are instead discussing one of the single craziest sports scandals of all time. Her name became shorthand for tabloid drama and simmering resentment and comically incompetent thugs and the general air of Jerry Springer about the entire proceedings, creating in many Portlanders a complex mélange of pride, embarrassment, pity, affection, and the sense that what befell her after the 1994 Olympics was simultaneously fair (she was involved in a crime and deserved the consequences) and unfair (she only ever loved one thing in her life and it was taken away because of a handful of stupid decisions).
It’s much simpler to decide what you feel about Nancy Kerrigan. Some people thought she was snooty or prissy, or they mocked her for “whining” after she was attacked. Not me. I loved Nancy Kerrigan. All other things being equal I tend to root for the brunette as a matter of general principle. And she was pretty and graceful and carried herself like a fairy-tale princess on the ice, and I loved her. Nancy was elegant. Tonya had mall bangs. It was not a contest. I adored her. But I adored her from a polite distance, because Nancy is not my hometown girl. Tonya Harding belongs to Portland in a way we will never shake no matter how hard we try. Before Portlandia, before Pok Pok and Stumptown, before the Decemberists even, Tonya Harding was our national claim to fame. My entire adolescence was shaped by more or less constantly seeing her name in the news, for increasingly crazy things.
The infamous attack happened twenty years ago this week, which means that I am old, and that I am wildly enthusiastic about the onslaught of media reminiscences to revisit this landmark moment in Oregon sports history as an adult instead of a middle-schooler. This is the frame of mind with which I enter into my first and potentially last experience watching “an ESPN Films Production,” as I sit here on my couch with a bag of chocolate-covered pretzel thins from Trader Joe’s to brave Nanette Burstein’s The Price of Gold.
On with the show!
–We are not two minutes in and already the director has made it VERY clear that she views Harding as the way more interesting and complex character in this story, where Nancy is “just a victim.” Interesting. I had indeed heard that this doc focused heavily on Tonya, whereas the new NBC one WHICH I CANNOT FIND ONLINE ANYWHERE AND IT IS KILLING ME actually landed an interview with Kerrigan and focuses somewhat more on her.
–Well, here’s a thing. As much as I’ve read and remember of this story over the years, you know what I had forgotten? The actual footage. Nancy Kerrigan’s screams are harrowing.
–Baby Matt Lauer sighting! Look at all that hair!
–Of COURSE Scott Hamilton is in this.
–ANN SCHATZ IS IN THIS!?!?!?!! Oh, do you guys not know Ann Schatz? Well, you SHOULD. She’s a big-deal Portland TV sports reporter AND was friends with my mom AND is basically the coolest.
–Modern-day Tonya Harding looks . . . rough.
–PDX AIRPORT CARPET SIGHTING!!!!
–This 90’s skating montage is showing us the absolute best/worst in Tonya Harding’s period hairstyles. Nancy always has a flawless ballerina bun. Tonya has what you really genuinely in all honesty can only describe as “white trash hair.”
–Connie Chung totally just called her “the ugly duckling with frizzy blonde hair from the wrong side of the tracks.” CONNIE CHUNG PULLS HER PUNCHES FOR NO MAN
–I’m excited to hear this start to go into a “historical flashback exploring the evolution of the ‘ice princess’ phenomenon” direction because that means we’re going to get old-timey film reels of Sonja Henie.
–Oh, Dorothy Hamill’s hair. You are a national treasure.
–Oh my God, Tonya Harding was an ADORABLE child.
–She’s at the Lloyd Center ice skating rink! R.I.P. Old Lloyd Center. #neverforget
–This home video footage of baby Tonya skating in the eighties is killing me with its cuteness.
–Wow. Baby Tonya’s coach is . . . kind of a bitch? The way she talks shit about the Hardings’ home and Tonya’s family, with a sort of prissy little “Tonya would have NOTHING if it wasn’t for skating,” is just suuuuper patronizing.
–Ann Schatz is telling us about how Tonya grew up skating sometimes without any food in her stomach, not knowing if each lesson was her last, because her family was so poor, but it was the only place she felt like she could be herself. NARRATE EVERYTHING FOREVER ANN SCHATZ
–WHOA. Another girl saw Tonya’s mom hit her after a practice and wanted to call CPS but the coach told her she couldn’t, “because then they’d take her away from her parents and her skating career would be over.” GUYS THIS SHIT IS INTENSE
–Watching 15-year-old Tonya matter-of-factly tell her friend with a video camera that her mom is an alcoholic who hits her, in that flat tone of voice you get when you’ve sort of forgotten that that terrible thing is actually terrible because it’s become commonplace so you just say the words like they’re regular words, is heartbreaking.
–OH MY GOD HER MOM IS GIVING AN INTERVIEW IN A GIANT FUR COAT WITH A FUCKING PARROT ON HER SHOULDER AND SHE KEEPS GIVING SIDE-EYE TO THE PARROT I CAN’T EVEN WITH THIS WOMAN
–Mulleted Baby Tonya is calling her mom to tell her about her performance at Nationals (wearing, I might add, a button-down, sweater vest and bow tie that makes her look like a tiny butler), and her mom is SO. AWFUL. She’s giving her crap about missing her combination and you can see Tonya trying not to cry as she gets off the phone. But instead of falling apart she just swallows her tears and says, “What a bitch,” which would elicit at least a raised eyebrow from me if it was anyone else but in this situation I’m like, “CO-SIGNED.”
–“It’s a snob sport,” says Tonya’s choreographer of why Tonya never fit into the skating world. And then we go down a very interesting road of exploring how ice skating melds scrappy tomboy athleticism – Tonya was always famous for her fearlessness as a jumper – with presenting this very elegant and traditional femininity (which Tonya couldn’t do and had no interest in anyway). Guys, is this turning into a feminism movie? I KIND OF THINK IT IS. Could this whole catastrophic situation have been averted if figure skating had a slightly broader accepted definition of femininity that allowed Tonya to make a place for herself? This is a serious question.
–Oh God, the eighties leotards. I die. Green tiger print! Neon color blocks! Purple leopard!
–The footage of her being the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel remains awesome – and incredibly moving. (Quick shot of Baby Kristi Yamaguchi watching from the sidelines! EVERYONE LOOKS SO YOUNG!) And watching adult Tonya remember that moment makes you desperately wish that the end of this story isn’t coming. PLEASE STAY A FEEL-GOOD SPORTS MOVIE ABOUT OVERCOMING OBSTACLES FOR A LITTLE WHILE LONGER BEFORE I HAVE TO REMEMBER THAT JEFF GILLOOLY EXISTS
–I forgot how quickly it all went downhill. She landed the triple axel and won like ALL THE THINGS and then she just psyched herself out and there’s an excruciating montage of her trying for triple axels and falling, and it is all horrible.
–OH MY GOD JEFF GILLOOLY’S PORNSTACHE AND COSBY SWEATER COMBO IS ABSOLUTELY INDESCRIBABLE
–GUYS. HE WAS THE FIRST PERSON SHE EVER DATED. AND HE HIT HER. LIKE ON THE REGULAR.
–So she shows up for the ’92 Olympics basically a hot mess because Jeff Gillooly is DRAINING HER LIFE FORCE, can’t land the triple axel, loses to Kristi Yamaguchi, who BTW I LOVE, and then Connie Chung reappears onscreen in her black dominatrix trenchcoat and fierce red lipstick to introduce us to Olympic ice princess Nancy Kerrigan.
–Contrary to posture-and-deportment-based stereotypes, Nancy was not a posh East Coast blue blood. She also grew up a low-income tomboy who loved to run and jump. But where the two athletes part ways is that Nancy and her coaches made a conscious decision to pursue grace, artistry and a refined elegant demeanor as part of her on-ice persona. Nancy played the game more effectively. Whereas Tonya was a scrapper who picked crazy music and sewed her own bonkers costumes that the judges haaaaated and then when they called her out she would just tell them to shove it to their faces. See? YOU KIND OF CAN’T NOT LOVE HER.
–Ooof. Watching Nancy rack up all those hefty endorsements must have stung. Campbell’s Soup, Reebok, Sam Goody . . . Whereas Tonya had ZERO sponsors. When you see all the facts laid out chronologically it’s not hard to track where Tonya’s crushing resentment came from.
–I forgot the double-bonus 1994 Olympics! There was one in 1992 and then they decided to stagger them with the summer Olympics so there was one again two years later. This was the winter of my eighth grade year, which means it’s very likely I watched the figure skating competition while wearing my beloved sterling silver Star Trek communicator pin. NO APOLOGIES.
–There’s so much of this news footage I don’t remember seeing. The aftermath of the attack was filmed eight ways to Sunday, obviously, since the arena was full of media there to watch the skating. It’s bedlam back there. Nancy’s dad is running through the snow, chasing after the attacker, there are security guards racing everywhere, Nancy’s coach scoops her up in his arms and takes off for the infirmary, there are sirens and ambulances, and it’s just total insanity.
–Here’s a thing that never occurred to me: before everyone found out what had happened, everyone on the ice at the U.S. Championships totally just thought some rando had broken in and attacked a skater. They must have been scared out of their minds that someone else could be next.
–Tonya Harding claims she had no idea what happened and she found out when her coach came in to wake her up and tell her. I very much want to believe this, but Baby Tonya is alarmingly calm and cheerful when reporters ask her about how she feels about the Kerrigan situation, and it doesn’t inspire confidence.
–OH MY GOD MICHELLE KWAN IS LIKE TWELVE YEARS OLD IN THIS SHOT I AM DYING FROM HOW TINY AND CUTE SHE IS
–Flashback Ann Schatz, rocking an EPIC striped 1994 blazer interviewing Tonya on camera as she arrives home at PDX, back in the days when you could just walk right up to the gate and greet people. And Tonya is just . . . not selling her concern for Nancy.
–I’m just going to say what we’re all thinking – Tonya’s bodyguard looks like a serial killer. Also HILARIOUSLY bad at crime, as apparently he cannot stop telling everyone in the whole world that he planned the attack.
–HOLD UP. How did I not know that an anonymous letter came to the news station and that’s how everyone found out? Guys, this is some next-level All the President’s Men shit. A letter comes through basically saying “Tonya and Jeff and their bodyguard did it,” and Ann Schatz gets the letter (GUYS MY MOM’S FRIEND ANN IS LIKE THE RUNAWAY STAR OF THIS MOVIE) and calls Tonya and drops the hammer and is like “You’re gonna want to read this letter I’m holding in my hands, yo!” and makes her come down to the studio if she wants to read it AND has to agree to an interview. And then gives this super creepy TV interview where she keeps looking at Jeff and he’s like not letting her answer certain questions, and then when she’s pressed on whether or not it’s true she just giggles awkwardly, and girl, I am NOT. BUYING. WHAT. YOU’RE. SELLING.
–And now the FBI is in this! Ohhhh man, this FBI agent’s scornful facial expressions about the bumbling crooks are PRICELESS. These guys are just . . . like SO BAD at crime. They’re all staying in hotels under their own names and using credit cards and then telling everyone what they did. A fourth-grader could plan a better criminal escapade than this. Wile E. Coyote’s schemes have better attention to detail. “You’d have to be a moron to travel all the way across the country to do a hit and put everything on Visa,” says an interview subject, and I want to high-five him.
–It’s pretty baller that Nancy just went “Fuck this noise, I’ve got six weeks to train for the Olympics and get this knee in shape” and she just powered through like a boss.
–And then the media circus descends. The scene with Nancy being snuck out of her house at midnight, hiding under a pile of coats in the backseat of a car, to get back on the ice without the cameras spotting her, is absolutely bonkers. Whereas Tonya Harding is practicing at Clackamas Town Center in front of a mob and loving it. “I don’t think it occurred to her how deep and hot the water was,” says Ann, “she was just enjoying the attention.”
–Connie Chung laughing about how the New York Times had to grudgingly share space jammed in around the rink next to people like the National Enquirer is my favorite comic gem of the entire film so far.
–And then Ann BLOWS MY MIND with a story about some guy in the media circus who comes up to her all like “Wanna listen in? I bugged their house!” This shit is bonkers.
–GUYS THERE WAS A TIME WHEN NOT ALL OF LARRY KING’S HAIR WAS WHITE THIS IS SO INTENSE
–“It was so rich in its blacks and whites, nobody needed the grays,” says Tonya’s childhood friend. I think that’s the moral of the story.
–Guys, have we discussed how much Tonya Harding looks like Amy Adams?
–Some of these tabloid reporters are total garbage people. They’re setting off her car alarm on purpose so she’ll run out of the house to turn it off and then they can snap a picture and harangue her. “Tonya! What do you have to hide?” “Jeff, are you willing to sell Tonya out to save yourself?” THESE ARE REAL QUESTIONS I AM HEARING
–“I didn’t know anything I had nothing to do with this I’m completely innocent why are you yelling at me? J/K I totally knew, but not until AFTER, so you still can’t be mad.” Ohhhh, Tonya. But for real, this press conference where she has to awkwardly admit that she failed to report a shitload of evidence and then just sit back and wait to find out if she’s on the Olympic team? Excruciating.
–My second-favorite interview subject in this film besides Ann Schatz is John Powers of the Boston Globe. “People kept saying, ‘Oh, well, she’ll do the right thing and step down off the team,’ and I said, ‘The hell she will. If you know Tonya, she’s an alleycat. She’ll claw and she’ll scratch and she’ll make you throw her off the team and then she’ll turn around and sue you.’ And that’s exactly what happened.” They told her she was off the team and then she legit just turned around and was like, “Cool, have fun when I sue your asses for ten million dollars.” Which is a boss move.
–They settled out of court, so she’s off to Lilliehammer! Where she gets absolutely slammed by the media. A European journalist stands up and asks her a STAGGERINGLY douchey question about how she’s been received by her U.S. teammates, and quotes Nancy Kerrigan saying “I’ve never hugged her before so there’s no reason to hug her now even if I wanted to.” But Tonya just politely says everyone is very nice and looking forward to representing their country and utterly refuses to take the bait.
–OOOF. Watching Tonya’s face as Connie Chung (who freely admits that CBS covered the SHIT out of Harding and Kerrigan because it was a media dream come true) tells her, “The world is not watching you right now because of your figure skating. You know that, right?” is excruciating, because you can kind of see that she really did not know that. Or at least didn’t want to admit it. She’s playing it like a professional politician – refusing to answer controversial questions and then literally TAKING OFF HER MIC AND WALKING OUT ON CONNIE CHUNG.
–Ummmm . . . here’s where we get to an Olympic-sized pool of self-delusion: present-day Tonya was, and remains, mad at NANCY, because Nancy didn’t accept her half-assed “Sorry all those people that used to hang around me did that awful thing I had nothing to do with so I acknowledge no guilt but I’m sorry this happened to you in the vaguest way possible, SEE LOOK I’M A NICE PERSON.” And you can tell from her face that twenty years later she is still LIVID that Nancy blew her off. “For her to treat me like that? Like she’s above me? That’s just rude.” YOU GUYS I CANNOT EVEN WITH THIS
–Nancy wore the dress she was attacked in to their first practice when they had to be on the ice together. Not gonna lie, I dig that subtle passive-aggressive move. NANCY KERRIGAN HAS NO FUCKS LEFT TO GIVE, AMERICA
–“Everyone thought Nancy was a princess . . . I had to stay in the dorms with security and she got to do whatever she wanted.” Oh man, this is rough. She is still SO. MAD. and can’t understand why everyone treated her the way she did. And I mean . . . I kind of get it but also kind of want to smack her. She is seething. Still. Twenty years later.
–Ooof. I forgot her short program was so rough. By the time they got to the long program, Nancy was in first and Tonya was in TENTH. I’m sure CBS agrees the story would have been juicier if they were neck-and-neck, but how the hell could you expect Tonya to kick that triple axel’s ass when everyone in the world is staring at her like she’s the devil? Right? I mean, I can kind of see it.
–Nancy’s bitchy gay skater BFF from the 1994 team CLEARLY believes Tonya faked the whole “I broke my lace” teary-eyed meltdown in order to scam her way into a chance to start over because she landed that first jump so badly. But, SPOILER ALERT (for something that happened 20 years ago) it didn’t matter. Ann Schatz drops a truth bomb: “She came back on the ice and she wasn’t even a good skater, let alone a great skater, let alone an Olympic medalist.”
–And this is how you know it’s messy real life instead of neatly structured fiction: Harding the villain whiffs it, Kerrigan the hero redeems herself by skating like a majestic fairy princess of the ice not six weeks after being basically incapacitated, and the gold medal goes to . . . “WHO THE FUCK IS OKSANA BAIUL???” says every news media outlet in the world.
–Poor Nancy. I love me some Oksana, but it’s hard not to feel like there was some politics going on there . . . Nancy’s mom thinks the judges were indirectly blaming Nancy for all the sudden notoriety coming down on that year’s skating competition, and I can kind of see that.
–And then present-day Tonya goes off on what a “crybaby” Nancy was, on account of Nancy’s visible disappointment at getting silver instead of gold (although the two interview subjects who are skaters basically verify that, yeah, it was a little fishy, Nancy should have won it) and it gets VICIOUS. And this is the moment where I just find it impossible to remain even remotely on her side, because her total inability to see Nancy’s side of this is borderline-sociopathic in its lack of compassion.
–And then it all goes downhill. Tonya goes and pleads guilty to obstruction of justice (maintaining to this day that she had nothing to do with planning the attack, just that “oops I probs should have called the police earlier instead of lying”), gets probation, pays a shitload of fees, gets kicked out of the U.S. Skating Federation AND has her gold medal from Nationals revoked. And it is BRUTAL, after having spent the whole film building up that she has literally nothing else in her life except skating, to watch it all get taken away from her when she’s still so young. And I can see how she would PROFOUNDLY resent, as all the interview subjects mention, the fact that skating goes on to this like massive widespread national revival where all these tours are selling out across the country and skaters are making millions of dollars (Scott Hamilton rather huffily refutes the notion that the subsequent boost in attention to skating has anything to do with the scandal). Once again, the girl who had nothing feels like she still has nothing, while the girl she believed had everything already gets even more.
–And then hearing her story of how hard it has been for her – doing the boxing thing, taking odd jobs – just reminds you how sad this whole thing is. She works in landscaping now or something. It’s just such a disappointing anticlimactic end for someone so talented.
–And now we ask all the interview subjects whether or not they think Tonya was really involved in masterminding the attack. She maintains that she had nothing to do with it, despite several places where the evidence directly contradicts her assertions. (TONYA: “That is not my handwriting.” FORENSIC HANDWRITING EXPERT: “Liar liar pants on fire.”) And basically everyone is like “OH MY GOD OF COURSE SHE DID.” Or they very carefully avoid taking a side but leave you to read between the lines. The most interesting commentary, though, comes from Tonya’s childhood friend who has been one of the main interview subjects, provided a bunch of the childhood home video footage, and has been sort of the vox populi of the pro-Tonya camp the whole movie. And she basically says, “I’ve avoided answering this question for twenty years” and hems and haws for awhile before she uncomfortably comes out and says, “Of course she was involved. Of course she was.” And it is a startling moment. I actually really didn’t expect her to say it. But she brings it home at the end by making the most important point of the whole epic tabloid saga – that Tonya’s Shakespearean fatal flaw is a complete inability to accept responsibility for anything. To most of America, the victim of this story is Nancy Kerrigan. To Tonya Harding, the victim is Tonya Harding.