Monday, April 17, 2023

Recasting 2017 (supporting): "I, Tonya"

As I hinted at the end of my last post in this series, one of the roles for which I've sort of coveted for Meryl has been Allison Janney's Academy Award-winning performance in I, Tonya. It's well-known that screenwriter Steven Rogers wrote the part for Janney, as the two were longtime friends. It's therefore very unlikely that Meryl would've gotten near this role, even if she had been interested. But that's the fun of this project--getting to imagine that Meryl would've somehow had a connection that would've placed her in the running. 

The role itself is that of LaVona Golden, mother of infamous figure skater Tonya Harding. This is where I'm so drawn to this movie and character. In early 1992, at the age of 12, I watched the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on TV. I don't recall exactly why I was so into it, but I recorded it on our VCR and watched it over and over. I could remember the "Battle of the Carmens" from Calgary in 1988 between German Katarina Witt and American Debi Thomas, both of whom skated their Olympic long programs to the music of George Bizet's opera of the same name. It was an intense competition with a lot of media coverage pitting the two skaters against each other. The results were ultimately disappointing for me, as Thomas had a bad skate and finished with only a bronze. We didn't have a VCR in '88, so the memories of it (which included a very young Ekaterina Gordeeva--a pairs skater with Sergei Grinkov--as the media darling of the games), along with vague memories of Japan's Midori Ito being the first woman to land a triple axel in '89, remained just that, memories. 

I think it was my ability to rewatch the U.S. Championships and soaking in the spectacle of Tonya Harding, who by then had become the first American to land a triple axel (in Minneapolis!) the year prior, that sort of sucked me in to the events leading up to that year's Olympics in Albertville, France. Harding was the reigning U.S. champion, but she had finished second to fellow American Kristi Yamaguchi at the World Championships the year before. Incidentally, Nancy Kerrigan finished third at the worlds in '91, making it a clean sweep for America on the podium. The skating itself was fascinating to me, but the drama of waiting to see who would take home the top prize at the Olympics was probably the most entertaining bit of it all. 

For whatever reason, I was sort of pulling for Tonya in '92. Maybe it was because I liked that she was the best jumper. She also felt more like the small-town rural girl with whom I more closely identified. Not that I didn't love Yamaguchi too, just that there was something about Harding that felt like she needed more rooting for. In the end, Haring had a disappointing Olympics, and ended up returning two years later for the Games in Lillehammer, Norway. 

It's basically Harding's life leading up to these second games and the wild ride afterward that make up the events of this movie. Very few people are unfamiliar with the story of how Harding's dumb husband tried to mastermind clubbing Nancy Kerrigan to try to prevent her competing at the Olympics, which would have paved the way for Harding to more easily take gold. It didn't work the way they wanted, and Tonya was eventually banned for life from competing due to her somewhat oblique involvement in the scheme. Not as many people knew how rough of an upbringing Harding had, which is vividly depicted in the scenes involving her mother. 

It's easy to draw parallels between this character and Violet Weston, Meryl's character in her August: Osage County. They're both rather unfeeling mothers, who, under the guise of giving their daughters a leg up, sacrifice their own upward mobility, only to later resent their children when they don't succeed to the level their mother's expect. It's an age-old example of trying to live vicariously through one's children. There's a hint of love in it I suppose, but ultimately it feels more like a harmful obsession that's based in vanity and jealousy. That said, it's sort of fascinating. And while I'm not a big fan of inserting Meryl into roles that seem too similar to one's she's already done, the fact that this particular role is set in a world that's so embedded in the memories from my childhood, I found it impossible to pass up.  

Allison Janney's performance was one of the most dominant in award season history. She swept the Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA and Academy Award, in addition to multiple critics' groups awards. Margot Robbie earned nominations in Lead Actress in all the major televised ceremonies as well, but lost out to Frances McDormand for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri most of the time (as was Meryl for her performance in The Post, incidentally her most recent Academy Award nomination). I, Tonya was generally well-received by critics, holding a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 77 score on Metacritic. With a meager $11 million budget the film ended up being a financial success, earning nearly $54 million worldwide in box office receipts. 


  1. I strongly suspected this was going to be your choice Jeff but I enjoyed reading about your connection to the material from your childhood! As you say, the Allison Janney role was certainly one for an actress to sink her teeth into. I remember rumblings that Allison was charming the award circuit but that many hoped for Laurie Metcalf's to prevail for perhaps a more sensitive portrayal of a mother in "Ladybird".

    I played with the idea of suggesting this role for Meryl as it may have been a welcome contrast to "Violet", even though on paper Meryl was too old, I'm sure it still could have worked, plus she was to go on to form a working relationship with the Director in "Little Women". I think Meryl would have been wonderful as a tough but ultimately loving mother in what was one of the top-rated movies of 2017.

    In the interests of not being lazy I will instead go for the role of Clementine Churchill in "The Darkest Hour", as played by Kristin Scott Thomas. While I'm not a huge fan of the movie I would like to see Meryl pull off this public figure often overshadowed by her blustering husband, played to good effect (in heavy prosthetics by Gary Oldman of course). It would also be an interesting counterpart to the reimagined role of Mary Todd Lincoln suggested for 2012.

    While not an awards darling, her performance did bag KST a Bafta nomination and the movie itself did well. I am surprisingly (though I unfortunately shouldn't be!) finding it more difficult to find great supporting roles for older women in this final stretch!

    I also thought about suggesting a switch with Angela Lansbury, where Meryl plays "Aunt March" but in the 2017 TV version and Angela takes one last great supporting turn in the superior 2019 movie, but that's not very likely I guess!

    1. I think Lady Bird might have worked out OK. Metcalf is only six years younger than Meryl. I think I would've been more interested to see that than the The Darkest Hour role, although it would've been a good one too.