Sebastian Stan did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jeff Gillooly in I, Tonya.
I, Tonya is a very entertaining take on the material, though it lifts its methods very blatantly from Martin Scorsese it thankfully applies them well. This approach though is particularly effective in the way it is used to fashion the story as an anti-inspirational biopic. In that we get technically have some beats from a typical biopic but turned on its head here in the story of the infamous Tonya Harding. This is right down to her significant other playing a pivotal role in her story. Where this is usually left for the Oscar role of the "supportive wife", like Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything, this time we get the "supportive" husband in Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly, those quotations on the supportive very much a requirement. Now I, Tonya has been a rather heavily praised film, and deservedly so. Sebastian Stan seems to have become one of the most underrated performances of 2017 in a critically acclaimed film, as he could not even get a single citation from even one of the most obscure critical groups in either lead or supporting. Stan is in one of those strange situations though where I feel his performance was taken for granted. This can often happen when someone who is not all that well known plays a despicable character.
Stan is best known for playing Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier in the Marvel cinematic universe films yet even there he flies under the radar despite some strong work in his latter two turns as the character, but again there he played a secondary role with a sparse amount of lines each time. This apparently seems to have caused some not to be aware that this is a transformative performance by Sebastian Stan, and a brilliant one at that. There is nothing about Stan as Bucky or any of his other performances, or in interviews that suggests he's at all the right man you'd peg to play the not quite infamous, due to attention spans, Jeff Gillooly. Besides the mustache, that as Gillooly describes in the film as something he is apologetic over, Stan fully embodies this particular man. For example his vocal performance here is particularly impressive, though not given much credit, because of how low key it is. Stan though fashions that sort of squeaky sounding voice of the actual man. His work is completely consistent in the realization of that to the point that he even is able to find naturalistic variations within his voice through Gillooly's higher pitched timbre. Of course it is so good one does not even think about the fact that Stan is putting on a voice at all, it just sounds like it is his normal speaking voice, but of course it's not.
Stan is equally effective in terms of his physical manner in the role which again is not at all typical to Stan's normal screen presence. Stan typically has a more outgoing effortlessly more intimidating style fitting towards a man with self-confidence. Obviously that would not work for Jeff Gillooly so Stan realizes this intensity of insecurity in his body. He carries this tight restrictiveness in his manner and the way he faces someone speaks is always a little off kilter as though he's often afraid of direct confrontation or even eye contact. He is more often retiring in his manner as someone who has not a hint of faith in any of his own abilities. Again this is something that Stan just so effortlessly brings to his performance that it is not noticeable unless your trying to examine his performance as I am doing here. He just naturally behaves as Jeff Gillooly and makes it such a given that no one even notices that his performance is quite a leap, again perhaps because Stan isn't well enough known himself, but also perhaps because Gillooly's not an especially well known historical figure. Stan's recreation of this man though is notable and he does accomplish this with such ease. He manages to never make it seem as though we are looking at Sebastian Stan playing this part, he just comes off as Jeff Gillooly in the film which should not be something that is hand waved.
Of course his performance does not end there either in his realization of the subversion of this type of character usually found in a more hopeful story. We get the early meeting between the two where it appears to be love at first sight. This is something that Stan rather hilariously realizes in his portrayal of Gillooly's love struck face, and his perfectly meek delivery of "you like food?" as his pick up line to Tonya. We very briefly get the "romantic" side of the man which Stan portrays as actually genuine in his affection at Tonya at least in some very basic level. In these moments Stan correctly portrays this overt attachment to her in their less difficult moments, and he portrays this almost sorta flimsy exuberance in these moments as trying to be the good boyfriend and later husband. We have their interactions which are incredibly well handled by Stan in that he portrays this very exact sort of charm here. In that he doesn't play at this overt charm that would be appealing to most people, however he does find something there in a very unassuming way that one can at least see the vague appeal that Tonya finds in him. Stan correctly relates this only to the moments though where he is trying to directly show his attempts that he loves her in some way, which he makes honest in the moment even if they are dishonest to the man as a whole.
Those moments are quickly subverted by the frequent scenes of Gillooly's physical abuse of Tonya. Now most of the time when this is a feature in a character it often becomes the sole emphasis within the actor's performance which usually becomes quickly one note. Stan avoids this pitfall, though not in a way of softening his character, as he makes these moments as just the basic part of what makes up Gillooly, which in a way is more disturbing than if he had to muster energy to be abusive. Stan depicts these scenes as basically just something that he does that is just basically an innate behavior of his as breathing is. Stan makes the moments as a natural part of his insecurity as a person. Stan handles them as casual as clockwork in any moment their alone and he portrays just a minor frustration as more than enough reason to hit her. Stan doesn't portray this at Gillooly's low point but really just his typical state of being for such a pathetic man. He makes them as these attempts to quickly put her down the moment Gillooly feels down about anything himself. He doesn't depict this as building him up as some bully seeking confidence, but rather just this further stewing in his own misery where he tries to bring Tonya right down to where he is. His moments even of apology Stan actually makes earnest, in that he's not a sociopath, but in his weak willed delivery of the apologies shows it stemming from the exact pitiful core of the man.
What is particularly remarkable though is that even with these pretty horrible moments of abuse this is actually often a rather funny performance at times, though usually in a fairly dark way. What Stan does isn't to ever try to be funny but rather excels in just presenting this wretched man that is Gillooly and amusing things can come from this due to the strange state of the man. That state that Stan makes so pure that it is occasionally hilarious because of how unabashed he makes this. For example when Gillooly goes about trying to make up with Tonya, over his friend's Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walt Hauser) parent's phone, Stan delivers every time he asks Shawn's mother to redial Tonya's number in the same one would as a child upset while at friends house. Stan delivers this certain cordiality towards this every time, and again it ends up being very funny since Stan makes it seem so authentic to the man he has established up to this point. This can even be in a pitch black sense at times though for example when Gillooly threatens Tonya with a gun, while also threatening to commit suicide. Stan brings all the appropriate emotional intensity to the moment, but also through the funnel of the guy Gillooly is. When he does fire in the heat of the moment, there is natural bit of dark humor in Stan's "oops, I didn't mean it to go this far" reaction when Gillooly sees he might have seriously hurt Tonya. Stan manages to find the balance in his performance because his work always stay so true to the character.
Of course what defines the story, and what Jeff Gillooly almost as important to I, Tonya as Tonya herself, though the name of the film suggests she's not so innocent as she often claims in the film, is the attack on her chief rival Nancy Kerrigan. We never get really the full story, however what we do get is the realization of Gillooly's particular method at being the "supportive" husband to Tonya's life story, through his attempt to sabotage the competition. Stan finds this sort of toxic support though throughout his interactions with Robbie as Harding. As in the moments of her success Stan portrays a directly honest happiness for her success, unless it diminishes his presence in her life. Stan then proceeds to depict the initial staging of the idea again rather comically as the man who is going to make her Olympic dreams come true. There is sort of this false cunning that is rather hilarious that Stan projects as he considers the plan with Eckhardt where he does portray a type of confidence, the weakest most pathetic attempt a confidence you could see. There is not an ounce real confidence mind you there in that he is the same physical manner but not just with this brittle attempt at being the "good husband". Of course thing quickly spiral out of control as the attack is launched, though we never exactly get a clear explanation in terms of the exact awareness of all parties. Stan during this portion often gets sole perspective as he becomes sort of the king of dunces as Gillooly attempts to deal with his involvement. The scenes between Eckhardt and Gillooly are particularly entertaining though in the way Stan and Hauser play it as dumb and dumber. As Hauser plays a man with firm delusions that keep him a sort of bliss against Stan playing a different kind of delusion by depicting such overt, and rather funny, frustrations as he thinks he can deal with one of the few people if more incompetent than himself. The highlight of this perhaps being the moment of seeing the attack coverage on the news with an amazing primal scream by Stan, fitting to a man who realizes he's screwed up to a colossal degree.
Stan is great in the public scenes where he shows again that attempt at a confident, innocent, Gillooly that just couldn't seem more unnatural or unbecoming to the man as Stan still presents him oozing with that same desperation that defines him as a person. As the story begins to unravel Stan is terrific by showing this already underwhelming act slowly falling apart in each successive scene to reveal a more overtly pathetic individual who is overwhelmed by both the idiocy of both the other guys, and his own. Stan delivers every line as a near confession with so little sincerity in his voice, and weakens to the point he shows us practically the same guy who asked Tonya if she liked food near the beginning of the film. Now the one facet I haven't addressed, because it is the most separated in his work, is Stan's portrayal of the current Jeff Gillooly giving his version of the story. Stan once again excels in this, as I love how he plays it that Jeff may or may not have learned anything from his story. He properly changes himself enough to reflect the older age of the man, but what's more important is the way he tells the story. In terms of learning a lesson Stan brings enough of an embarrassed air to voice he speaks of the worst times to suggest perhaps a more introspective man. At the same time though he delivers the same pathetic quality within the bit of pride he expresses in certain moments of the story such as when describing when Tonya asked him back or his feelings on the use of his name as verb to describing hitting someone in the leg was "kind of cool". That is yet another facet of this great performance by Sebastian Stan as he fully embodies this pitiful man in a way that never becomes one note naturally making a cohesive individual out of the different sides of the man and at the same time finds a surprising degree of humor in presenting this as the typical "supportive husband/wife" character gone very wrong.