Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding Biopic Should Inspire More ’90s Scandal Movies

By  · Published on March 22nd, 2016

With just three more episodes left of The People v O.J. Simpson, where will you turn to for your ’90s true crime fix? Well, if you’re interested in more on the Simpson case, there’s ESPN’s 7½-hour documentary series, O.J.: Made in America, airing in June. And if you’re just wanting a depiction of a scandal from that decade, HBO’s Confirmation, about Anita Hill’s sexual harassment charges against Clarence Thomas, premieres in a few weeks. But while a second season of American Crime Story is in development, its focus will be set in 2005 during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Fortunately, Margot Robbie is here to save you from complete withdrawal from sensational Clinton-era nostalgia fodder. Deadline reports the actress is producing and will star as the lead in I, Tonya, a movie scripted by Steven Rogers (Stepmom) about the infamous figure skating champ Tonya Harding. Sadly, Harding is mostly remembered today not for her achievements on the ice but for her involvement in a plot to incapacitate rival skater Nancy Kerrigan ahead of the 1994 Winter Olympics. Harding claims to be a victim herself, having been aware of the scheme orchestrated by her then husband Jeff Gillooly yet unable to stop it. She wound up banned from the US Figure Skating Association and became a sex tape star, reality TV icon and butt of many jokes and parodies.

Given the movie’s title, you could assume the story will be primarily told, defensively, from Harding’s side, aligning it with Nanette Burstein’s 2014 30 for 30 documentary The Price of Gold. That film gives the disgraced athlete an outlet for her to speak in depth about the incident, and she’s fascinating to watch. But most people like dramatized versions, and reportedly Rogers conducted extensive interviews with Harding and Gillooly (now Jeff Stone) to set things straight from their end. And now the Internet is having fun casting other characters we’ll see in the biopic. There’s Pajiba’s perfect suggestion of Scoot McNairy for Gillooly, for instance, as well as ideas for Jessica Pare or Anne Hathaway to play Kerrigan. Or if they’re deemed too old, then Daisy Ridley.

The news also has me wondering if this is just another tip of the iceberg for movies and quality limited series based on similar true stories of the period. The decade isn’t just ripe for remarkable scandals and crimes, but it’s also constantly being noted how the ’90s were the dawn of reality television and the web, plus the start of more serious conversations about domestic abuse, sexual harassment, slut shaming and media exploitation, and are therefore historically significant to the culture of today. Below are some of the big stories of the time that I could see following I, Tonya to the big screen.

Greggory Smart’s Murder (1990) — Deadline likens the I, Tonya project to the 1995 movie To Die For, which is a fictionalized take on the real murder of Greggory Smart by his wife’s teenage lover. Like Harding, the wife recently received an outlet for her defense in the form of a documentary. Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, which I called one of the best true crime docs in years, focuses on how the over-mediation of the story effected the trial, which was one of the first ever to be televised. There was a made-for-TV drama aired in 1991 called Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story. But 25 years later, a more serious depiction with greater hindsight could make for quite an arresting feature.

The Amy Fisher Story (1992) – You may recall, if you remember anything about the “Long Island Lolita” tale, is that we got three TV movies about Amy Fisher and her shooting of Mary Jo Buttafuoco – wife of the teenage girl’s lover, Joey Buttafuoco – all within a single week. Two of them, one starring Drew Barrymore as Fisher and another starring Alyssa Milano in the role, aired the very same night. What would be interesting now is a movie about the competition between the three productions (Noelle Parker starred in the other one) and the whole nature of stories like these being turned over so quickly for sensational TV movies during that era.

John Wayne Bobbitt’s Penile Dismemberment (1993) – One of the craziest headline stories of the ’90s is that of John and Lorena Bobbitt. In case you could possibly have forgotten, John had his penis cut off in his sleep by his wife, who subsequently threw it out the window of her car into a field. In retrospect, we’re able to see the incident differently. Back then, Lorena was considered a monster, especially by men, while John became the bigger celebrity, in part due to his porn showcases and, well, because of his unfortunate situation. Yet Lorena was an abused wife, and that’s an issue addressed more seriously today (much like how we see Anita Hill’s harassment charges differently now, too). A movie about the Bobbitts should mostly be about her.

The Caning of Michael P. Fay (1994) – As long as we’ve got two verses of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s song “Headline News” covered, I might as well include this less-remembered story that doesn’t involve sex or murder. Fay was an American teenager living in Singapore who was convicted of vandalism and sentenced to caning. As in a spanking involving a cane. The case became a sensation here because of the culture difference, as in the strangeness of the punishment from our perspective, as much as for its severity, and even President Clinton became directly involved with the matter. The movie of Fay’s life and crime would be like a cross between Midnight Express and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

NEXT: The Price of Gold (30 for 30) Review

Bill Clinton’s Affair With Monica Lewinsky (1998) – Who better to have a scandal-based ’90s nostalgia movie than the president whose name often adorns the era? I wouldn’t be surprised if someone finally made a big movie about Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky during the presidency of Hillary Clinton, if that happens. It could be an Oliver Stone sort of thing, maybe even an actual Oliver Stone thing. But it should focus on Lewinsky, as this is a time for the women who were unfairly damned by the media of the time to get some justice. She’s also written more recently on the scandal, and it’s come up in her campaign against cyber-bullying, as she was a victim of such abuse in the early days of the Internet because of her infamy. That connection to the present is a worthy angle in order to avoid further sensational exploitation.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.