Sunday, June 25, 2017

#2,371. Personal Best (1982)

Directed By: Robert Towne

Starring: Mariel Hemingway, Scott Glenn, Patrice Donnelly

Tagline: "How do you compete with a body you've already surrenered to your opponent?"

Trivia: Actress Mariel Hemingway trained for more than a year in preparation for her role

Writer / director Robert Towne’s Personal Best is, in many ways, a sports movie; two Olympic hopefuls train for the 1980 games in Moscow, participating in a number of minor events along the way and pushing themselves as hard as they can to stay in tip-top physical shape. But more than anything, this 1982 film is a love story about two women who, though competitors, cannot shake the feelings they have for one another.

The year is 1976. Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly) is a champion Pentathlete, and during the Olympic trials she spots a teenage runner named Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) who, despite losing her event, has great potential. The two strike up a friendship, and Tory convinces Chris to enroll at Cal-Poly, where, along with becoming her teammate (and roommate), she’ll be coached by Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn), considered one of the best in Ladies Track and Field. 

But as Coach Tingloff will discover, Tory and Chris are more than good friends; they’re lovers, and their deep feelings for one another occasionally get in the way of their training. Personal Best follows the two women over the course of several years, detailing their personal struggles as they prepare for the Olympic Games, where (should they make the team) they will be competing against each other in the same events.

Though primarily a love story, Personal Best does, on occasion, put the focus squarely on Chris’s and Tory’s competitive nature; in an early scene, Tory tells Chris she lacks a “killer instinct”, at which point Chris, to prove her wrong, challenges Tory to an arm wrestling match. Using a series of close-ups, director Towne shows, quite effectively, the determination in each woman’s eyes as they strive to win, and takes what could have been a simple (perhaps even a humorous) contest and transforms it into something very revealing. There are many other sports-related scenes scattered throughout Personal Best that accomplish this same thing (with plenty of slow-motion to build the drama of each one).

But it’s the affair between Chris and Tory that takes center stage, and how their love for one another sometimes dulls their competitive edge. Realizing this is the case, Tingloff tries to drive a wedge between the two women (when Tory gets involved in Chris’s training, Tingloff drops some not-too-subtle hints that she’s actually offering bad advice, and trying to sabotage Chris’s performance). Yet his attempts usually end in failure. Chris and Tory also struggle with the effect their relationship is having on their training. Their minds and bodies are telling them to win at all costs, but they cannot ignore their hearts (after a lifetime of pushing themselves to achieve their dreams, they are suddenly in a position of caring more about someone else’s well-being than their own, and they don’t know how to handle it).

Hemingway and Donnelly are outstanding as the lovers trying to cope with a difficult situation, and Scott Glenn is also strong as Tingloff, a hard-nosed coach who cannot understand how two world-class athletes could allow their personal feelings to interfere with their Olympic dreams (in what may be Glenn’s best scene, Tingloff laments the fact he turned down a chance to be a men’s football coach for the less-rewarding job of ladies track and field. “I was coach of the year last year”, he says. “You know what that means when you're a women’s coach? Jack shit”). 

Also, kudos to writer / director Towne for taking what in the 1980’s was a taboo subject (lesbianism) and handling it with care; aside from a few crude remarks made by Tingloff (done primarily to ignite either Chris’s or Tory’s competitive fire), Personal Best does not draw attention to its same-sex relationship. It is a love story, plain and simple; the fact that the lovers are both women doesn’t matter one bit.

And it’s in exploring this love that the movie truly distinguishes itself; Personal Best is, without a doubt, a good sports film, but it’s an even better romance.

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