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Personal Best

Personal Best
Warner DVD
1982 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 128 min. / Street Date January 8, 2008 / 19.98
Starring Mariel Hemingway, Scott Glenn, Patrice Donnelly, Kenny Moore, Jim Moody, Jodi Anderson
Cinematography Michael Chapman
Production Design Ron Hobbs
Film Editor Jacqueline Cambas, Jere Huggins, Ned Humphreys, Walt Mulconery, Bud S. Smith (supervising)
Original Music Jill Fraser, Jack Nitzsche
Written by Robert Towne
Produced by David Geffen, Robert Towne
Directed by Robert Towne

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Screenwriter Robert Towne can't be accused of picking a 'safe' subject for his directing debut. Personal Best is about the intimate lives of Olympic hopefuls. The film has a non-judgmental attitude toward a lesbian romance and is loaded with drug use and matter-of-fact nudity. Easily the best entry on star Mariel Hemingway's resume, Personal Best also features good performances from a number of Olympic athletes-turned actors, especially the winning Patrice Donnelley. Towne's film was a daring gambit in 1982 and would still be a tough sell in today's studio system given the film industry's fear of offending modern conservatives.


Young track star Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) does poorly in a 1976 Olympic trial meet. Track contender Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly) intuits Chris' potential and browbeats coach Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn) into taking her onto the team. Chris' father disapproves, which leaves the girl in an emotionally needy position. She and Tory begin an affair, and move in together. The relationship develops problems when Tory challenges Terry's authority as coach over Chris' training; Tory's possessiveness breaks Chris' concentration while Terry must resort to stern (manipulative?) measures to keep the women focused on their goals. Tory's suggestions cause Chris to sustain a knee injury. While recovering, Chris meets Olympic medalist Denny Stites (Kenny Moore) and regains her bearings. She develops the will to go forward and even challenge Terry's authority.

If one can get through the controversial trimmings, Personal Best is an absorbing story of personal lives clashing with professional goals. Coach Terry Tingloff would be happy if all his 'girls' were as focused as his top star "Pooch" Anderson (Jodi Anderson), who can keep her emotional life on an even keel while improving her skills. Chris is confused and Tory is passionately stubborn in her wants and needs, and the line between athletic coaching and psychological counseling becomes blurred. The women are the ones that must do the running and jumping and Terry tries to temper his discipline with nurturing praise. With athletes of extraordinary potential like Chris and Tory, he must make a special effort. Many plot descriptions of Personal Best describe Terry's coaching as 'manipulative', to which the only sane answer is, 'Yes, that's part of his job'. In one scene Terry must pull back from making love with Chris, so he is capable of getting himself into trouble. But he's a professional who doesn't lose sight of what's right, and he wants only for his track stars to do their very best.

Personal Best unflinchingly presents athletes for what they are, people with a special relationship to their bodies. The runners are like race horses with a limited number of prime years available to make their mark. Keeping those bodies in tune is constant, unglamorous work; the women sweat like animals and spend their days obsessing over stress issues and potential injuries. Towne's camera regards the runners' bodies as magnificent machines. Tory and Chris seem to be all leg. Only in the steam bath scenes and other moments of full frontal nudity does the film's desire for honesty break down. Towne and his cast are open about the nudity, which in this context comes off as asexual even when the women are telling dirty jokes. Feminists might applaud the steam bath scene, which integrates aspects of women often addressed separately: their bodies, their individual personalities, their sexuality, their femininity. Although presented without voyeuristic intent, the scene is going to be reinterpreted by the viewer's sexual bias no matter what Towne does.

In a telling moment, Chris asks her new boyfriend about his medals and the swimmer admits that he's ambivalent on the issue. The honor that defined his life seemed a letdown when it finally happened. Most viewers aren't going to challenge the worth of Olympic Gold as a life goal, but in the almost universally accepted sports/life metaphor, we may be moved to think about our own career goals. Terry tells Tory that generosity has no place on the field, that each of the contenders has 'buried their share of bodies' and must think only about besting the competition if they really want the prize. Some of us play life as a lark or a jest, but for the real competitors the 'game' is a do or die imperative.

The three lead performances express the nuances in Towne's screenplay. Mariel Hemingway looks like a creampuff at first but convinces as a girl with natural talent. Chris Cahill 'matures' in that we can see her get a handle on some of her insecurities. Towne doesn't judge her affair with Tory from a moral standpoint, but we immediately understand that the relationship is going to be a problem because the girls are competing in the same categories. As Terry says, Chris can't decide which would be worse, beating Tory or losing to her. Denny Stites helps stabilize Chris not because he's a 'healthy' heterosexual contact but because he's an outsider to Chris' problems and carries a fresh perspective.

As the experienced pro, Patrice Donnelly's Tory Skinner goes against the grain of lesbian mentors in movies, which are almost always older, domineering and manipulative: Lianna, Notes on a Scandal. Robert Towne doesn't see any of his characters as villains. Tory wants what's best for Chris and goes out of her way to help her, even harming her own performance in a meet by staying up to hold Chris when she's sick. Tory eventually loses control of her possessive nature, but her devotion to Chris is complete.

Scott Glenn's Terry Tingloff is the pro coach and den mother doing his darndest to keep his racers from spinning out of control. We immediately see why Chris needs an objective coach to replace her impatient, demanding father. Terry constantly reminds his girls that his disciplines are essential to victory. When he has to deal with star athletes that are also lovers, Terry knows that he'll be resented. He comes forth with a speech about turning down lucrative offers to coach major league football, where the players' performances aren't subject to their emotional states and 'feelings' -- an interesting parallel to the, 'There's no crying in baseball" gag in A League of Their Own. When Tory and Chris reject Terry's coaching before the final games, it's not because he's incompetent or manipulative but because they've learned all he can give them ... as he's said all along, they're the ones who will be doing the running.

Sports stories big and small, authentic and phony all reach for the defining moment of transcendence where an athlete or team reaches their personal high in the middle of competition. Personal Best follows this form but in a believable fashion. For the final race, the estranged lovers offer each other honest sportsmanlike support. Chris gets Tory back into the race, even though the woman will in all likelihood win and take away Chris's opportunity to qualify. They remain competitive friends of the 'I like you and you're great and I'm going to do my best to beat you' kind. In athletics, that may be the right kind of gladiator attitude.

The 2008 Olympics are coming around, and Savant will probably once again be grousing about the manufactured athlete bio featurettes, that unerringly repeat the same fairy tale: The competitors are all superlative beings that have overcome impossible odds in their personal lives to reach this great day of reckoning. I'd like to see a re-run of the uplifting story produced to honor that poor multi-champion track star lady, who just lost her medals and is now facing criminal charges -- what a tragedy. Fans who look to athletes for human perfection don't seem to realize that the truth is more likely to be something like Personal Best. Many people have backgrounds and lifestyles that won't fit into the sanitized Olympics media fantasy.

Personal Best is beautifully filmed by Michael Chapman and edited by a battery of cutters under supervising editor Bud Smith. The narrative slows several times to treat us to excellent sports montages of people in motion, both training and competing. A few of the cutting strategies suggest warmed-over Leni Riefenstahl but the majority are fascinating, as when we see the training-conditioning process that teaches Chris how to do the high jump over a horizontal pole. The slow motion angles of taut muscles make us appreciate the amazing shape these women are in. We also become highly aware of how a simple stumble or sprain could lead to professional disaster.

Robert Towne was given good marks for this effort, which seems a holdover from the 1970s when personal movies with limited mass appeal were a commonplace. If I remember correctly Personal Best was lumped in with a number of 'coming out' dramas about homosexuals and lesbians, that were heavily promoted at the time as groundbreaking but have mostly been forgotten: "Look - straight movie star "X" is playing a gay!" Towne's picture is about far more than that and has aged very well.

Warners' DVD of Personal Best is a fine enhanced transfer from perfect elements, with great color and clear sound. The extras are a trailer and a good commentary with director Towne and actors Scott Glenn and Kenny Moore. Towne explains that the movie took almost two years to make because of an actor's strike. Glenn trained to be an assistant women's track coach with real Olympic athletes -- all of the players save Hemingway were Olympic contenders. Ironically, the boycott of the 1980 Moscow games made the athletes all the more available to act in the film.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Personal Best rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, commentary with director Towne and actors Scott Glenn and Kenny Moore
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 19, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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