Allison Janney received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as LaVona Golden in I, Tonya.
One of the reasons why I, Tonya is among my favorite movies of the year is its moral complexity and ambiguity: this is especially evident in its depiction of the two central characters that, both due to the writing and the brilliant performances from Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, evoke conflicting emotions in the viewer. Their actions are reprehensible, even despicable, and the movie never shies away from that, but they also realistic, three-dimensional human beings that you grow to understand even if you condemn their actions. Allison Janney's performance as Tonya Harding's abusive mother has been one of the most praised and awarded aspects of the movie, but I have to say right away I don't share the intense admiration most people feel towards her work: in a movie I admire for its ability to be thought-provoking and contemporarily objective and empathetic, Janney's LaVona is by far its most straightforward element. She's a character that captures your attention while watching the movie but not one that stays with you or that evoke a reflection regarding her motivations and feelings. It's a flashy performance but not an especially deep one and for all the impressively done showboating I was far more fascinated and captivated by Robbie's and Stan's far richer performances. In the context of the movie, Janney's performance works: she is an effective villain of sorts, she's an entertaining presence on screen and certainly doesn't detract from the overall experience. But looking closely at her work it's a rather thin performance and I think that Janney herself sometimes missed the potential complexity that the script offered her.
In the early scenes of the movie, there is no denying that Janney is a force to be reckoned with: she doesn't hold back on LaVona's abrasive, unloving behavior and she makes her the overbearing presence she is supposed to be - it's a performance that dares you not to pay attention. But at the same time I never felt she truly captured the horror of LaVona's abuse, remaining too often on a purely surface-level in her performance - Sebastain Stan managed to give an entertaining performance while still effectively depicting the terrifying tragedy of his abusive behavior towards Tonya, something that I don't think Janney managed to do. In fact, it's through Margot Robbie's portrayal of Tonya's trauma that we feel the real severity of the impact of LaVona's behavior because Janney's performance feels too often one-note and even a little shallow. She never truly becomes a caricature, but at times she comes dangerously close. She is appropriately grotesque in the part but she rarely feels truly real. I do think there are moments of greatness in her performance: the scene in which she tells Tonya "You fuck dumb, you don't marry dumb" at her wedding is an incredibly hard-hitting moment and Janney is terrific in her delivery of LaVona's fatal blow to Tonya. And she is excellent in the scene in which she has a fight with Tonya and ends up throwing a knife at her: Janney is fantastic at showing that, for once, LaVona is stunned by her own behavior and for a moment seems to feel genuine remorse for her action. It's my favorite scene of her performance: in it, she manages to balance the louder qualities of the character while bringing a hint of depth to it. But her whole performance is too uneven to truly excel as a whole - for every moment in which she lets you see the damaged humanity of her character, there is one in which she feels paper-thin and one-dimensional.
In the second half of the movie, Janney gets progressively less screen-time, having only a handful scenes devoted to her character, and again I found her performance to be rather inconsistent, with moments of greatness intertwined with others that are a bit underwhelming. Her confrontation at the diner with Tonya is perhaps one of her most celebrated scenes of the movie, but to be perfectly honest I found her to be completely overshadowed by Margot Robbie's heartbreaking portrayal of her character's plight. LaVona's "I made you a champion" speech could have been an opportunity for Janney to give more insight into LaVona's mind but I felt it was a bit of a missed opportunity - she is a one-note of aggressiveness, and though a well played one I felt there was room for more. And I thought the few scenes focusing on her reactionary shots at the diner while watching Tonya skates were a bit of a mixed bag: the "I want to see her face" is perhaps the most interesting scene of her performance and Janney is absolutely brilliant in it, but other moments felt more vague than subtle - the camera focuses on her face but there's not much subtext to be found in her reactions. But I thought she was great in her final scene with Robbie, delivering an uncomprominsingly brutal portrayal of LaVona's selfishness and opportunism - Janney is effective in her portrayal of LaVona's feigned sympathy until gradually revealing that the sleazy nature has not changed.
In regards to the interview scenes, Allison Janney is very entertaining, even hilarious at times, but those scenes don't really add to the character as much as Stan's and Robbie's interview scenes add to Jeff and Tonya. The two bring depth and subtle irony to those moments, while LaVona's interview never really amount to anything more than entertaining, except for a very small moment in which Janney seems to suggest that LaVona is genuinely sad about the fact that Tonya cut ties with her.
I think Allison Janney is an absolutely superb actress and she's a presence I always enjoy watching on-screen. She's probably going to win the Oscar next week, and I'm fine with it, because she is an excellent actress who deserves recognition. But in my opinion her performance in I, Tonya is not something award-worthy: it's an enjoyable performance with sparse moments of greatness, but overall it's a thin portrayal in a movie that is anything but. It's a performance that works perfectly well in the context of the movie, but that is a little lacking itself.