Personal Best (1982) - Rotten Tomatoes

Personal Best (1982)



Critic Consensus: Mariel Hemingway has a career-making star turn in this highly physical drama about two Olympic athletes who find each other during competitive training.

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In 1982, there was a brief cycle of homosexual-relationship films, none of which were successful enough to form the basis of a trend. Producer/director/writer Robert Towne's Personal Best is one of the finest. It stars Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly as athletes participating in the 1980 Olympics. Growing ever closer during the training process, Chris (Hemingway) and Tory (Donnelly) fall in love. Up to this point, Chris has been "straight," thus has trouble sustaining the relationship with older Tory. Their relationship is counterbalanced with the attitudes held by their male coach, Terry (Scott Glenn). While the homosexual element of the film is secondary to the endless shots of athletes in training, the critics latched on to the film's romantic angle, which may have sabotaged its chances for box-office success (the world was a different place in 1982). Personal Best was the directorial debut for Robert Towne, who was not to direct another film until 1987's Tequila Sunrise.
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Geffen Pictures

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Mariel Hemingway
as Chris Cahill
Scott Glenn
as Terry Tingloff
Patrice Donnelly
as Tory Skinner
Kenny Moore
as Denny Stites
Jim Moody
as Roscoe Travis
Kari Gosswiller
as Penny Brill
Jodi Anderson
as Nadia `Pooch' Anderson
Martha Watson
as Sheila
Emily Dole
as Maureen
Jan Glotzer
as Karen
Jan Van Reenen
as Yelovitch
Jane Frederick
as Fern Wadkins
Cindy Gilbert
as Charlene Benveniste
Marlene Harmon
as Pam Burnside
Linda Waltman
as Debbie Floyd
Cindy Banks
as Kim Stone
Milan Tiff
as Willie Lee
Earl Bell
as Randy Van Zile
Larry Pennell
as Rick Cahill
Luana Anders
as Rita Cahill
Robert Patten
as Colin Sales
Margaret Ellison
as Nellie Bowdeen
Charlie Jones
as TV Announcer
Frank Shorter
as TV Announcer
Jim Tracy
as Duane
Janet Hake
as Waitress
Sharon Brazell
as Hostess
Robert Horn
as Water Polo Coach
Christopher Vargas
as Water Polo Player
Wendell Ray
as PA Announcer
Richard Martini
as Meet Manager
Len Dawson
as Announcer
Clim Jackson
as Men's Team Member
John Smith
as Men's Team Member
Anna Biller
as Women's Team Member
Susan Brownell
as Women's Team Member
Desiree Gauthier
as Women's Team Member
Sharon Hatfield
as Women's Team Member
Linda Hightower
as Women's Team Member
Joan Russell
as Women's Team Member
Themis Zambrzycki
as Women's Team Member
Leroy R. Perry Jr.
as Chiropractor
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Critic Reviews for Personal Best

All Critics (22) | Top Critics (6)

Personal Best is likable precisely because it is so unembarrassed.

Full Review… | August 4, 2008
TIME Magazine
Top Critic

Towne has a love of slow motion that's employed as if he's afraid you might miss one, rippling muscle. Worse than that, when people aren't exercising, they are often talking about exercising.

Full Review… | August 4, 2008
Top Critic

The sort of nerve required to produce an excellent screenplay like Chinatown seems to have deserted Towne in this, his directorial debut.

Full Review… | February 9, 2006
Time Out
Top Critic

This is a very physical movie, one of the healthiest and sweatiest celebrations of physical exertion I can remember.

Full Review… | October 23, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
Top Critic

Unless you're fascinated by all of the prettified slow-motion footage of Chris, Tory and the other women athletes, your eye is likely to wander to your watch long before the end.

Full Review… | August 30, 2004
New York Times
Top Critic

The characters have a fullness and vitality rare in American films of that period, but Towne has so much trouble establishing information visually that the film emerges as choppy, confused, ill-proportioned.

Full Review… | January 1, 2000
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

Audience Reviews for Personal Best

Mariel Hemingway gives a really good performance, it's a real shame her career wasn't bigger than it was. Good film.

Matt Heiser
Matt Heiser

An unusual subject to get the Hollywood treatment, and as such it should be commended, while Hemmingway is always worth catching.

Lee Mayo
Lee Mayo

No, but I'm Gonna! There are probably people who think it is hypocritical to simultaneously condemn the mass media for pretending that bisexuality doesn't exist and for ending every story about a lesbian relationship (or as near to every story as to make no difference!) with one of the women arm-in-arm with a man. (Yes, this is a spoiler, but it's a spoiler that I saw coming before I turned on the movie and certainly before we got to the end.) The issue is that these movies play lesbianism as a phase that some girls go through, not the way they are and the kind of life they're always going to lead. I don't dispute that I've known women--or, more accurately, teenaged girls--who did the "bi because it's fashionable" thing for a couple of years in high school or college. However, I have known a lot more who are still not attracted to men, ten or twenty years later. This gets into the whole weird straight-men-watching-lesbian-porn thing, which most women don't understand, either. Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is a hurdler. She catches the eye of Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly), who is pretty sure that, with the right coaching, Chris could make the 1980 Olympic track team. Oh, also, she starts sleeping with Chris. But she and Chris convince the Cahill family, including her father (Larry Pennell) and coach, but Tory's coach, Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn), is a harder sell. However, when he finally deigns to give Chris a chance, he discovers that she really is that good. He sees her dedication to Tory as being a bad thing--not because Tory is a woman but because Tory is a distraction. Both women put their focus and drive into the sport and each other. Then, Terry decides that Chris needs to be a pentathlete, like Tory, and things get even more complicated. They are already in the process of breaking up when Chris takes some training advice from Tory--and dislocates her knee. And while she's recovering, she meets Denny Stites (Kenny Moore). Almost all the actors in this movie were actually athletes. Jodi Anderson, who played Nadia "Pooch" Anderson in the film, actually won the event in the real world that is the climax of this film. (And, of course, had to deal with the disappointment that the characters experienced; the film had to be rewritten when the US boycotted the 1980 Olympics!) The only three I'm sure were professional actors were Hemingway, Glenn, and Jim Moody, who played assistant coach Roscoe Travis and who was also in [i]Fame![/i] as the drama teacher. It was actually kind of surprising, because I thought they were better actors than athletes usually are. Then again, all a lot of them really had to do was what they did anyway--run, jump, and so forth. It's a lot easier to get away with using athletes in a sports film than in any other kind of film, I guess. After all, they don't even really have to act, for the most part. Anderson gets maybe a dozen lines. I was disturbed, however, by a lot of the casual prejudice in the film. It isn't just that a coach tells an athlete whom he knows was in a long-term homosexual relationship a crude joke about a gay stereotype, though that's certainly part of it. There's also a fairly awful dirty joke that is also extremely racist. I don't feel I know enough to specify exactly where all this comes from, though. Is it the fact that the film was released in 1982? I don't have a lot of memories of prejudices in that era (I turned six that year), but I've consumed a lot of culture from that era and believe that it was considerably more prejudiced that would be acceptable now. It is possible, too, that it's the hazard of being in a small, insular group. I don't want to claim that "all jocks" believe any one thing any more than I want to claim that, well, all Chinese people have "slant eyes and buck teeth," but it is well established that the more you connect with your friends, the easier it is to look down on people outside the group. I understand why this movie is a Classic of Gay Cinema (TM). Literally no one in the movie judges Chris for having been in a relationship with Tory. Terry does judge her for how she's letting it control the rest of her life--he believes that it's detrimental to her athletics, which he considers more important. However, I get the impression that he'd act the same way if Denny were the one causing problems. What's pleasing is that Denny doesn't seem to care, either. It's hard to keep track of time in this movie, but it starts with the trials for the 1976 Olympic team and ends with trials for what is, let's face it, an honourary position on an Olympic team four years later that wasn't going anywhere. Chris and Tory were together for most of the time between those two. Denny doesn't care, because what matters to him is that Chris is faithful to him now. I like that attitude, even if I dislike the fact that she ends up with Denny in the first place.

Edith Nelson
Edith Nelson

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