This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
I said, this train carries broken-hearted
This train thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings
This train, all aboard
What a world we live in. Most of us are spit out into it with the guiding force of a family and we fit in like a link in a chain, living out our lives as expected by our culture. We grow up, go to college, maybe get married, get a job, retire, die. Maybe in between there are a few bumps in the road — an affair, a financial collapse, an unexpected death. But there are some people who never fit into the world defined for them, either because they never wanted to or because it wasn’t offered to them. Two films this year, I, Tonya and The Disaster Artist, are about people who live outside the range of normal and achieve notoriety somehow, by a series of unpredictable oddball accidents. Both of the films are a refreshing change from the usual round of “good people doing good things” that crowd Oscar race.
While it’s easy to laugh at the depictions of Tonya Harding and Tommy Wiseau, there is also an embedded tragedy there — a heartbreaking desire to belong to a world that spits them back out every time they try to enter it. They’re freaks that people find funny but they’re also people who wake up every day and try their best to come at life, like we all do. These “true” stories are highly stylized by their directors and are at times very funny and at other times too sad to bear.
I, Tonya follows in mockumentary form the sad tale of Tonya Harding, a figure skater who grew up dirt poor with an abusive mother and a talent for skating unlike anything anyone had ever seen who eventually gets an inexplicable chance to compete in the Olympics. You know the story, surely, unless you’re too young to remember it. We who lived through it remember all too well how it was an early example of the how the media needs a fresh piece of meat to use as fodder for ratings — now it’s clicks. Nancy Kerrigan was the classy American beauty. Harding was the trashy interloper — a woman who was never pretty enough to be America’s princess, but was also an athlete who simply did not accept that being a good skater had to also include class and good looks. Seriously, couldn’t it just be about the skating?
The Disaster Artist is a behind-the-scenes story of the cultural phenomenon that is The Room. “I did not hit her I did NOT. Oh hai Mark!” If you know it, you’ll recognize those lines, along with “You’re tearing me apart Lisa!” and “Oh hai doggy.” If you watch The Room enough times, you’ll start to hear that flat tone in almost every conversation you’re having with someone else. Tommy Wiseau, like Harding, puts on a good show of pretending to be like everyone else but he’s betrayed by his accent (no one knows where it’s from but probably Eastern European), his jet-black hair (clearly dyed), and his odd manner. Of all of the actors in The Room, Wiseau is the only one who really can’t act. Not even a little bit. And he’s the lead, he’s the star, so he kind of needs to be able to act. The Disaster Artist, based on the memoir by Greg Sestero (aka “Mark”), is about how the film The Room came to be. James Franco directs and stars as Wiseau while Dave Franco plays Sestero. The film is full of well-known faces and names all going along with the idea that this is a semi-serious film about how The Room came to be. But of course it has its own WTF moments, and some of them are simply imagining a Tommy Wiseau actually out there in the world, eating pizza, hanging out.
Still, the tragic elements seep through, mainly because of Franco’s performance, which is funny but doesn’t make fun of Wiseau. You can feel his heartbreak at being a stranger in a strange land who can’t just hang with the guys and shoot the football back and forth. It feels like a world whose rules he can’t quite grasp and it’s clearly a world that rejects him. Similarly, Margot Robbie is brilliant as Tonya and never makes fun of her character either, and doesn’t seem to understand why she got such a raw deal either — shooting rabbits to make her own coat, never having the right hair or makeup, having a mother whose toughness helped make her a better skater but a lousy human being. Tonya and Tommy — it’s hard not to feel for them.
Somehow, though, these stories don’t end up entirely unhappily. Sure, for Harding, never being able to skate again and having to become a pro wrestler was the greatest disappointment of her life but she is living happily now, married and with a kid. Wiseau has found worldwide fame with The Room and, like Harding, just goes along with it for the sake of making a buck or two and remaining in the public eye. Harding observes at the end of I, Tonya that the public wants someone to love, but they also want someone to hate. Both of these films are vivid examples of people whose fame is not dependent upon love or respect, but on our desire to put ourselves above others, to laugh at them, to pity them, even to hate them.
I was always sympathetic to Tonya Harding way back when. She wanted something she could never have. No matter how good of a skater she became, there was no way she could make herself look as sophisticated as her rival Nancy — she could never be the pretty one. Whether or not she actually “knew” there would be an assault against Kerrigan faded as the public needed her to have planned it like the evil witch she was. The public needed it whether it was the truth or not. This film doesn’t absolve Harding, but hey, at least she got to be played by one of the most beautiful women in the world.
Wiseau is still dwelling in a precarious place, fighting a documentary being made about him, but still supportive of Franco and The Room. He even shows up frequently at screenings of The Room around the world, basking in the glow of a strange kind of fame. As Rupert Pupkin might say, “It’s better to be king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime.” These films should bring even more unexpected notoriety to both Harding and Wiseau and introduce their stories to a whole new audience. Maybe it isn’t what either of them planned for. They probably really just wanted what we all did — respectability, a good life, love. Maybe fame, maybe fortune. The riches of life are not complicated. Why, then, are they so hard to obtain for some and not others? Maybe it’s the struggle itself that decides that. Not all of us are built for it.
Margot Robbie is a formidable contender for Best Actress, proving that she is good enough to play something other than pretty. James Franco is also just great as Wiseau. For both of them, a massive transformation needed to take place. They are the desired, good looking, successful people that our culture worships. How then to dig down deep and find the loser within? They managed it with careful research and, more importantly, compassion.
I, Tonya and The Disaster Artist are two of the best films of the year. Go see them.