Personal Best Reviews
there was love, friendship, sportsmanship, betrayal ... and then there were all those ridiculously toned bods.
the best sports movie ever on my list.
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.
Towne doesn't throw anything in the viewers face. Even though the initial central relationship of the film is a lesbian one, he always treats it as nothing more than it is. It's not sensational or overly dramatic, it's matter of fact and real, the exploration of a relationship that just happens to be between two women. This is Personal Best's strength, placing it far before its time as even now this kind of straight forward and normalizing of same sex relationships is still not particularly common in the media.
Robert Towne has written and/or contributed to a great many of classic works of cinema. He writes and directs this piece that is, for a movie about track and field, deadly slow. If you are interested in seeing a movie filled with wall-to-wall bad acting, Mariel Hemmingway's gargantuan caterpillar eyebrows, gratuitious athletic nudity (including one scene with Hemmingway helping a guy pee!)...maybe this film is for you. I will say that the race cinematography is breathtaking (bordering on pornographic) in its depiction of muscle contraction and beads of sweat clinging to a body.