Double Feature: Female Anxiety, Celebrity Edition (I, Tonya & Amy)
Double features are a great way to watch movies. Well-selected double features complement each other like food and wine, bringing out hidden flavors or making you realize new aspects of something familiar. If you’re ever in need of a keenly paired set of movies to screen, check out our handy pre-packaged double features complete with theme breakdowns, aesthetic comparisons, and honest commentary about which movie should be the leading feature.
How we treat celebrities in this culture is a strange, strange beast. I personally have had conversations with people who are staunch believers in autonomy and the right to privacy, yet they have no issue with paparazzi hounding celebrities (or their kids), not to mention nude photos being distributed without the consent of the photo’s subject. For some reason, when a human being is considered part of this vague thing called “celebrity” they forfeit their private life, as if in return for the fame we have given them we demand payment. In these two movie, we are privy to the other side of this invasive culture as well as the unsettling things people will do once they’ve gotten to stand fame-adjacent. Why these movies work well alongside each other is that both protagonists (for lack of a better word) are intensely talented women, whose rise to fame are both legitimate and impressive. These women aren’t brought down by their own hubris but by the terrible people they allow to get close to them. In both cases, one of those terrible people is the man they choose as their husband. As a good friend of mine once said, “smart women, stupid shoes.”
Lead Feature: I, Tonya (2017)
There’s a lot to be said about Tonya Harding (now Tonya Price) and how she is/was viewed, how the public embraced/rejected her, or even if she’s guilty/innocent. I, Tonya happens to be a more sympathetic view than we were first granted in the '90s, though it glosses over a bit of Tonya’s own guilt. Part of that is because what she was found guilty of was less than the rest, and the punishment she received was much more severe. They served time, sure, but she was essentially handed a life sentence of not being able to skate anymore. Why that’s so important is built up throughout the movie till we hear the sentencing: this is all she knows how to do. To be at the level of competing in the Olympics is not something that happens part time; all of her energy was invested in this one skill alone.
In I, Tonya we watch the sacrifice and commitment given and we watch how easily it can be pulled away. Tonya’s husband Jeff alternates between resenting Tonya’s skill and drive to wanting her to succeed. They have an incredibly toxic relationship and, on top of him being physically abusive, they seem to bring out the worst in each other. There’s a moment of cinematic side-eye where Tonya says she feels cursed because she’s not performing well, then there’s a quick cut to her and Jeff getting drunk at a bar the nights prior to competitions. Tonya’s not there against her will, nobody’s forcing her to drink. It makes us as the audience wonder how two people couldn’t pause the partying for a bit prior to the most important competition of her career.
The background of I, Tonya shows the start of the 24-hour news cycle and the simple way that living human beings get reduced to punchlines and headline fodder. There’s even a scene of Bobby Canavale playing the Hard Copy guy, gleefully explaining that he used to let the air out of her tires and have her truck towed just to get a picture of her. It’s a sobering reminder that skill, talent, and drive don’t really lead to respect.
Throughout the film Tonya is portrayed as talented, if a tad rough around the edges. The sport she chooses to be a part of is one that rewards traditional femininity and grace. She’s told that presentation matters, something us ladies are used to hearing from girlhood on. Despite the fact that she’s an athlete doing insanely athletic things, she is punished for being powerful and celebratory. During the end credits, the actual footage of Tonya landing the triple axel is played and she pumps her fists in the air, rightfully proud of herself. Compare that to almost any other figure skater (male or female) and note how there’s no reaction after they complete amazing feats of strength. Tonya is told in not so many words to perform but not celebrate, be graceful and not proud. Now, if that doesn’t hit on the ancient boiling anxiety of driven women everywhere then I don’t know what does.
Second Billed: Amy (2015)
The fact that this is the second movie is no indication of its quality. Actually, if we’re being honest, this is my favorite of the two but it’s billed second because it is much more somber and ends with the real life death of a 27 year old woman, Amy Winehouse. While I, Tonya is a reenactment of reality twenty years after it happened, Amy is a documentary released only four years after the singer’s death.
As we move through the timeline of her life, we watch her go from casual jazz singer to bouffanted performer to strung-out addict. The interviews with her friends, which are played only in audio, are truly upsetting. The more attention she got, the larger her persona got and the less control she seemed to have over herself. When she was singing in small clubs to modest crowds, she hadn’t yet adopted the over-the-top hair and makeup that would define her later career. These are the few scenes where Winehouse seems at ease with herself, excited to be performing and genuinely happy. As her fame grows, she starts to take on a more extreme look that parodies women of the fifties and sixties: big beehive hair, cat eye makeup, bright red lips. Interviews with ex-boyfriends throughout mention Amy being overtly sexual in a traditionally masculine way. Did this persona become a character she could slip into while performing, or was it a manifestation of what she perceived to be the femininity she was lacking?
No write-up or documentary about Amy Winehouse would be complete without mentioning her ex-husband and her father. Much like Harding, Winehouse had a habit of letting shitty people into her life. Her father essentially abandoned her when she was younger and reappeared once she was famous, trying to keep her in front of cameras when she’s desperately trying to escape them. Her ex-husband, a considerably less successful musician and more successful drug addict, seemed intent on keeping his wife drunk and high. It becomes pretty clear that he viewed her as a gravy train, and even actively hampered her attempts to get sober.
Clips of comedians and newscasters mocking Winehouse are played in between harrowing shots her in the throes of heroin addiction. Again, someone is reduced to a punchline. This time it was not because of possibly being involved in a violent act, but because of but because of addiction. Because she’s struggling. Because she dared to get famous and ask for privacy. The more she struggled, the more she was ridiculed for acting out 'on purpose.' The footage of paparazzi sitting outside her home waiting to get a shot of her is almost as harrowing as the footage of her addiction. There was no escape for her; nowhere she could go where she could be left alone. Everyone desired and thought they deserve a piece of her, from the news to her husband to her family. In the end, we witness a truly tragic yet preventable death of an amazing talent.
Themes: Fame, Talent, Shitty Relationships, Invasive Journalism
Aesthetics: Day-glo and neon accents, Juxtaposing male and female aesthetics