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Tonya Harding Returns for Final Encore

With the movie “I, Tonya,” an old Olympic scandal becomes Hollywood’s latest trip back to the 1990s

The Tonya Harding scandal glittered like a gaudy figure skating tutu, the makings of a Coen Brothers comedy emanating from each phony bauble.

The plot: Halfwits, fueled by greed and stupidity, launch a harebrained scheme, which unravels faster than Harding’s broken skate lace at the 1994 Winter Olympics.

In the end, no one got seriously hurt, the buffoonish plotters wallowed in disgrace (and, eventually, prison) while Harding wept and the world laughed.

The soap opera unfolded in time to provide tabloid comic relief amid two double murder cases that captured the public's attention.

Images of the Menendez Brothers trial and the O.J. Simpson killings blared anew in recent months, thanks to TV miniseries retellings of the sagas. So perhaps it's appropriate the Harding mess is poised for the latest revenge-of-the-1990s splash via "I, Tonya," which opens in theaters Friday with Margot Robbie in the title role.

The Coen Brothers aren't involved. But the dark comedy, like Harding, appears out to raise a little hell.

With the Russians recently raising the bar on Winter Olympics scandal, Harding team’s approach to cheating seems almost quaint. Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, hired Shane Stant to break the leg of her strongest U.S. rival, Nancy Kerrigan.

A baton-wielding Shant succeeded only in badly bruising Kerrigan, who later won a silver medal in Lillehammer. Harding finished eighth amid her skate-lace fiasco.

The cast of characters pit Harding, the product of a hardscrabble youth, against the more outwardly polished Kerrigan. The lanky Gillooly, with his porn-star mustache, formed a Mutt and Jeff team with the paunchy Eckardt.

The case marked an early harbinger of the growing confusion between fame and infamy as “Gillooly” became a household name – and a punchline. We also got a glimpse at the dyed roots of C-list-celebrity reality TV: A Harding-Gillooly sex tape emerged. Harding would go on to pummel Paula Jones, who accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment, during a 2002 episode of Fox's “Celebrity Boxing.”

The skater, banned from her sport four months after her Olympics fiasco, turned out to be her own worst enemy. That’s a shame: Her story of rising from modest means to become a world champion figure skater might otherwise have made an inspiring Horatio Alger installment.

Now she’s left with “I Tonya,” a trip to the 1990s powered by a tale that still resonates: A celebrity-tinged comedy of errors that landed with all the grace of a triple Lutz gone terribly wrong.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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