I Tonya, the new film about figure skater Tonya Harding, released late last year, drew praise as a very different kind of sports movie – one about an athlete of the past who’s been pretty strongly vilified, as Harding was for whatever role she played in her ex-husband’s scheme to strike her rival Nancy Kerrigan with a baton.
The film, directed by Craig Gillespie, doesn’t act as a pure exoneration of Harding, as it leaves the actual truth of the situation somewhat ambiguous, while clearly showing that Harding, at the very least, exercised very poor judgment, but was a victim in many ways as well. And most successfully of all, the film told its story as something of a black comedy, which veered at times into Coen Brothers territory (read my review of the film here). The film has even led to a renewed debate over exactly how much sympathy Tonya Harding deserves.
I, Tonya, which won a Golden Globe for supporting actress Allison Janney and since notched acting Oscar nominations for both Janney and Margot Robbie, has shown that there’s an appetite out there for nontraditional sports biopics, telling versions of stories that you thought you knew well, but telling them from a surprising or counter-intuitive angle. No, we don’t need these movies to let their subjects off the hook, but rather to give us another look at the then, through the lens of time.
…there’s an appetite out there for nontraditional sports biopics, telling versions of stories that you thought you knew well, but telling them from a surprising or counter-intuitive angle.
(Note: I’m not talking about telling the stories of “bad boy” sports teams of the past, because that’s not new at all; ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series has kind of cornered the market on that, with docs about the likes of the Detroit “Bad Boy” Pistons, as well as three different movies about the University of Miami football team.)
Some “controversial” athletes of the past who I’d love to see as the subject of an I, Tonya-style revisionist sports biopic:
The former San Francisco Giants slugger holds baseball’s all-time records for home runs in both a season and a career, but has something of a negative reputation for two big reasons: His reputation as a short-tempered jerk, and the widespread belief that he used performance-enhancing drugs, therefore rendering his records illegitimate. However, the passage of time has somewhat softened the public perception of Bonds and other athletes believed to have loaded up on steroids in the ‘90s, and while Bonds once again fell short of Hall of Fame enshrinement this year, his reaching Cooperstown isn’t entirely out of the question. A fascinating biopic could be built around Bonds’ decision to use PEDs- which he, to this day, has never admitted- in order to compete with the McGwires and Sosas of the world, possibly using government agent Jeff Novitsky as an overzealous drug warrior antagonist. Actor Billy Brown, from How to Get Away With Murder, is a natural to play Bonds.
Speaking of record-setting athletes who used PEDs… Armstrong’s story is familiar, as the seemingly heroic athlete who beat cancer, started a major foundation for battling that disease, won 7 Tours de France… and then was revealed to have been using performance-enhancing drugs the entire time. This could function as a classic rise-and-fall tale, possibly with a protagonist who trusted Armstrong and was ultimately let down by him.
Moss was part of a cohort of larger-than-life NFL wide receivers in the 1990s, often described as “brash,” “outspoken,” and as “troublemakers,” with varying degrees of implied racial dog-whistling. Moss ran into his share of controversies throughout his career, for everything from hitting a traffic cop with his car to getting released by the Minnesota Vikings in 2010 for complaining about catering. But Moss, as shown in the ESPN documentary Rand University, has a compelling backstory, and has reinvented himself after retirement as a highly respected TV commentator.
Suzy Favor Hamilton.
Hamilton was a middle-distance runner who competed for Team USA in three separate Olympics and after retirement, she was revealed to have been working as a high-end escort in Las Vegas. Hamilton wrote a compelling memoir about her journey, called Fast Girl, in which she shared her struggles with mental illness. The story was the basis for a Law & Order: SVU episode, but is a strong enough story to carry its own movie.
Agassi was one of the best tennis players in the world for an extended period from the mid-‘90s to the mid-2000s, winning 8 grand slams. He had a bad-boy reputation early in his career but eventually became a respected legend of the sport. And then, after his retirement, Agassi wrote a memoir, Open, in which he admitted to all sorts of shocking things, from caddish behavior with women to drug use – he even revealed that his famous hair early in his career was fake. Whoever plays Agassi in the movie will get to have a lot of fun with wigs.
Solo was the goalie for many years on the U.S. women’s national soccer team, winning multiple Olympic gold medals and the 2015 Women’s World Cup. But Solo has been the focal point of a great deal of off-the-field controversy, from her marriage to Gillooly-like ex-NFL player Jerramy Stevens to her bizarre 2014 arrest for assaulting her sister and nephew.
Sprewell was the NBA star who infamously choked his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, in 2007, leading to scaremongering headlines and a suspension for the rest of that year. But Sprewell had an unlikely second act to his career, as a beloved veteran who helped carry some very entertaining New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves teams.
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