Tommy Wiseau and Tonya Harding: What it Takes to Succeed

The following contains spoilers for The Disaster Artist and I, Tonya

This past week I’ve seen The Disaster Artist and I, Tonya, which proved to be strikingly complimentary films. This unintentional double feature paired nicely because each tackles the concept of the “American Dream,” the idea that the United States is a unique environment where anyone, from anywhere, of any means, can succeed if they put in the work. They address the theme from very different perspectives, but ultimately support the same understanding of how the myth of upward mobility in America collides with the realities of socio-economic class.

The Disaster Artist follows Tommy Wiseau. He is socially inept, comically talentless, and cluelessly arrogant. The film depicts him sympathetically, first as tragic figure, and in the end as a kind of folk hero. However he’s objectively not a good actor, not a good writer, a wasteful and inefficient producer, and an abusive director. Despite all this he thinks, or rather knows, he deserves to be a Hollywood movie star. Wiseau’s obsession with succeeding in Hollywood manifests, his American Dream becomes reality. He makes his movie his way, and although it’s a complete disaster, it finds a loving audience. Tommy becomes a cult-movie sensation. His success may not be what he envisioned- he wanted to be James Dean and he ended up as Ed Wood – but dammit he did it.

I, Tonya tracks figure skater Tonya Harding from childhood. At age 4 she is already immensely talented. At age 21 she became the first woman to complete two triple Axel’s in a single competition (it’s a very difficult figure skating move) and land it. Hell she’s the first person to even attempt it. She is exceptional from the start. Both characters face challenges, people who don’t believe in them, institutions that reject them, but where Tommy succeeds, Tonya is eventually crushed.

The defining difference between these characters is class. The Disaster Artist doesn’t reveal much about Wiseau’s upbringing, where he comes from, or why he is the way he is. But it belabors one piece of context: he is inexplicably, abundantly wealthy. He resides in a pseudo-mansion in San Francisco, has an apartment in LA, and he drives a Mercedes. When he decides to make a movie, there is no financial barrier to entry. In fact his ignorance leads him to spend far more money than he needs to without flinching. He buys prohibitively expensive film equipment instead of renting it, and builds sets instead of using real locations. In one scene a crew member played by Seth Rogen goes to the bank to cash his paycheck. When he expresses shock that check didn’t bounce, the bank teller informs him that this account is a bottomless pit.

Harding on the other hand, has nothing. Her socio-economic class defines her ability to succeed. While she is leagues beyond her peers when it comes to skating ability, she struggles to win competitions. The film repeatedly emphasises the subjective nature of figure skating. Winners and losers are decided by a panel of judges, whose opinions are tainted by classist ideas of what a figure skater ought to be, something they articulate with the coded term, “presentation.” They don’t like Harding’s music choice, her attitude, or the scrappy costumes she sews herself out of necessity. They especially don’t like what they know about her personal life. Tonya repeatedly asks, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?” She finally gets a straight answer when she confronts a judge in a skating rink parking lot. The judge essentially confirms, it never will be just about the skating, and she isn’t the image the skating community wants. Tonya needs to succeed in figure skating, it’s her only prospect at a prosperous life. She’s dropped out of high school to pursue it and doesn’t believe she has anything else going for her. She makes the calculated decision to reunite with the two most destructive forces in her life: her horrendously abusive husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her horrendously abusive mother. The image of an idyllic family, Tonya decides, is more important than her safety.

This decision, forced by the rigid standards of figure skating culture, leads to a chain of events that ends Tonya’s career. Jeff concocts a short-sighted plan to intimidate Tonya’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan, by mailing her empty death threats. Jeff’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) escalates the plan and hires a hitman to break Kerrigan’s legs. Although Tonya is complicit in the original, tamer but still terrible plan, she is kept ignorant of the more insidious plot. Jeff and Shawn ultimately sabotage her career. This string of terrible judgement calls spiral out of control. It insites a national media frenzy depicting Tonya as the villainous mastermind, and results in a Judge banning her from competitive figure skating for life. Throughout her life Tonya is faced with less resources and less options than those she’s competing against. Her raw talent carries her far, but in the end it isn’t enough. She gets so close to achieving her American Dream, and even lives it for a moment, but eventually it’s twisted into a nightmare.

By exploring two polar opposite situations, these two films illustrate the realities behind America’s myth of upward mobility. Wealth can enable even the most incomprehensibly incompetent people to succeed. Talent and skill doesn’t mean a lot if you don’t have the resources to nurture it. The Disaster Artist shows the American Dream is real. I, Tonya shows it isn’t available to everyone.

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