Everything I knew about Tonya Harding came from my parents and part of a documentary I watched with them on ESPN years ago. On the documentary, I learned many things about Harding but most importantly about her childhood at the hands of her cantankerous, abusive mother, LaVona Harding, who pushed her to ice skating stardom at the expense of her mental health. Janney won her Oscar for playing this difficult mother and she more than deserved it.
There are many challenges that come with playing such a character. A child’s relationship with an abusive parent is usually complicated at best, especially when the parent in question still cares about their child as Harding’s mother does. Portraying that well is difficult. At worst, the parent is portrayed as one-dimensional and completely forgettable. To do this well, the parent must be portrayed as multi-faceted. The best performances come from an actor who can be sympathetic and despicable at the same time. I’m happy to say that Allison Janney pulls this off incredibly.
LaVona is portrayed as stoic, callous, demanding, cold, uncaring, and for the most part, unlikable. She beats her daughter for not doing what she asks, and Tonya has to grow up mostly devoid of motherly affection, especially when her father leaves. LaVona seems to only mostly care about Tonya’s success as an ice skater and uses that as an excuse to be unapologetically abusive towards her, going so far as to stop her from even having friends. She justifies her actions by saying that Tonya skates better when she’s enraged. Even years later in interviews and when Tonya confronts her, LaVona still has no regrets over how her behavior has clearly hurt her daughter.
Yet oddly enough, LaVona’s attitude is also understandable. In the movie’s own darkly comedic way, the audience comes to understand that she’s like this because she doesn’t know how to be anyway else. Her lifelong poverty and lack of stable relationships has made her hard and unable to show love or affection to anyone. From her point-of-view, LaVona is helping Tonya the best way she knows how and sees the emotional damage as justifiable. She wants Tonya to succeed. Although her methods are wrong, the end goal is admirable.
Furthermore, there are moments that show LaVona cares more than she lets on. When Tonya is teased at school for being poor, LaVona tells her to spit in their milk. When Tonya shows up to breakfast with a shiner from her boyfriend, she tells her that she wouldn’t stay with a man who hits her. Even at her worst when she throws a knife that sticks in Tonya’s arm during dinner, LaVona stops her onslaught and stands in silence as if she’s reflecting on her actions. When Tonya moves in with her boyfriend, she doesn’t stop her and still attends all her competitions. Before Tonya performs her triple axel, LaVona pays a man to make fun of Tonya so she’ll be enraged enough to perform at her best. LaVona is a broken woman who doesn’t know how to love her daughter properly and her efforts to help only scar her further, but underneath all that is a mother who cares about her daughter.
This is especially apparent towards the end of the movie when LaVona goes to Tonya’s home surrounded by the press to offer her support in her time of need. There are no insults and no fighting. She just talks to her and supports her as a mother. For the first time, LaVona tells Tonya she’s proud of her and it feels completely genuine. Sure, it ends with Tonya finding out her mother had a tape recorder on her and her getting kicked out while she assures Tonya she still meant everything she said, but from her performance alone, I could tell she was still telling the truth. At the end, even though she claims she’s fine with Tonya not talking to her, the audience can tell she’s crushed.
The strength of this performance comes through because of Janney. She portrays LaVona Harding in all her complexity flawlessly. Janney has earned her reputation as a versatile actress and has had a variety of roles, mostly in television, according to her IMDb page. I’m happy to know her talent has been finally awarded with an Oscar.