Judge Jennifer Malkowski recognizes the personal bests these athletes achieve on the track, but she certainly doesn't see any records broken in bed.
When you run into yourself, you run into feelings you never thought you had.
Personal Best, a film I had always known as primarily a lesbian romance, is really a story about two female athletes in which queer desire is mostly a plot device to complicate and intensify the competition between them. Audiences looking for a meditation on the nature of athletic competition won't be disappointed with this beautifully shot film, but those hoping for an interesting (and/or hot) depiction of a lesbian relationship will find themselves less satisfied.
Facts of the Case
Devastated by her failure to make the 1976 Olympic team, young hurdler Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway, Deconstructing Harry) finds comfort in a new romance with star pentathlete Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly, American Anthem). As their relationship develops, Tory convinces her coach Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn, The Hunt for Red October) to take Chris under his wing. As Chris shows her true potential and Tory starts to falter, Tingloff suspects that their relationship is meddling with their athletic performances and decides to take matters into his own hands before the 1980 Olympic trials.
The fact that Personal Best is known as a classic lesbian movie says a lot about the lack of high-quality lesbian movies, given the relative merits of this girl-loves-girl-and-track-and-field tale. The relationship between Chris and Tory is far too juvenile for their college to post-college age group and is so unsexy that one almost feels like the filmmakers were trying to make it so. I can already see these two climbing the lesbian-bed-death hill when their initial flirtations consist of—I kid you not—burping, farting, and arm wrestling. What kind of foreplay is "pull my finger?"
The two barely talk about their relationship on screen, but one interesting scene highlights the low-level denial that apparently pervades it. Chris and Tory are arguing about their workout schedules and they get so frustrated that they talk about no longer living together. When Tory frames the situation in break-up terms, Chris balks:
Chris: "Jesus Christ, Tory, we're friends."
At first, I thought that the subtlety of their relationship was interesting. Personal Best is a film that sets up the queer couple early on and basically takes their relationship as a tolerated/accepted given, rather than making the whole movie a tortured, drawn-out coming out story like it's contemporary, Desert Hearts. But the aforementioned unsexy aspects of their story, coupled with comments from writer/director Robert Towne on the commentary track, frame this scenario more negatively. Towne describes setting the love scene in a child's room because he wanted it to be about innocence and to make it like two children exploring their bodies. He later talks about the lesbian relationship as being, "about people growing up and experimenting the way kids do." Elsewhere in the commentary, Towne expresses something between amusement and disinterested fascination with the homophobia exhibited by members of his crew and reviewers of the film. Certainly, Towne should be commended for backing the script in the face of controversy about the lesbian aspects, but in his expressed attitudes about homophobia and—more importantly—the "childish" relationship he creates between Chris and Tory, he fails to create a sufficiently respectful and complex queer romance, falling instead somewhere in the realm of mild condescension. Towne needed a queer romance because he wanted to mix love, sex, and competition in sports, and men and women rarely find themselves in direct, high-level athletic competition. But to justify the plot device, he should have put a little more effort and thought into the type of lesbian love story he wrote. One consolation is that the straight love scenes are unsexy in their own rights, with one highlight being a female character giggling and holding her lover's penis while he pees.
A fun sexy time Personal Best is not, but in this film Towne demonstrates a real passion for and understanding of what sports are all about for those who play them. Making ample and expert use of slow motion and finding all the best camera angles, Towne and his crew capture a bit of Leni Riefenstahl's flare for filming Olympic events back in her classic sports documentary, Olympia. Watching Tory run the long jump in the final Olympic trial is a breathtaking study in determination, musculature, and cinematography, for that matter.
Towne exhibits a real awe in the face of not just athletic performance but the athlete's mindset and mental preparations. His camera lingers on their little physical ticks as they get set on their starting blocks and the almost zen state of concentration the shotputters display as they cradle the shot between shoulder and neck. In the commentary track, Towne describes how he and the editors started these shotput scenes with the slowest slow-mo and then gradually sped it up to the standard 24 frames per second at the release point. Most directors would have slowed down the release, delighting in the physical movements at the climax of the event, but Towne understands that the release point is all about motion while the slowness, the stillness, plays a larger role in the moment of preparation. Towne often couples his gorgeous competition shots with a sparse voiceover from Coach Tingloff summing up the psychology of each event: "The high jump is a masochist's event. It always ends in failure."
And speaking of Coach Tingloff and masochism, you'd better be into the latter if you're about to sit through a movie about the former. If this character was supposed to be anything other than an extremely loathsome villain, then Towne was really far off on calibrating him. Tingloff is the kind of guy who shouts and swears at his students without compunction, behaves like a sexual predator, comforts crying athletes by calling them "dumb cunt[s]," tells jokes about "faggots," and complains in a bitter and extremely sexist manner about coaching a women's team. The sneaking suspicion that Tingloff is supposed to be read as deeply focused and ruggedly charming in an asshole kind of way makes his scenes almost unwatchable, so be forewarned.
This DVD release from Warner Bros. is adequately presented with minimal special features. The 26-year-old image suffers from relatively little scratching, though the horrendous '80s colors could be a bit more vibrant—though perhaps it is a blessing that they're not! Still, Towne's lovely compositions look pretty good on this DVD. Sound fares a bit worse, with muddy dialogue accompanied by tunes that date the film much more than the fashions. The included theatrical trailer is much more raggedy than the film itself, with dirt and scratches marring the image. The commentary track features Towne, Glenn, and Moore, though it's Towne and Glenn who do almost all of the talking. The conversation and reflection is pretty dry, with the most interesting bits being Towne's description of his cinematographic choices and his comments about the lesbian aspect of the film. One also gets a good sense of the film's commitment to realistic sports sequences from this commentary track, with the participants talking at length about the casting choice of athletes-turned-actors rather than actors who've been hitting the gym and about the importance of shooting at the real Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon. Towne makes some amusing comments about the idea of filming actors trying to compete as real athletes. After reminiscing about the "pudgy, white legs" running in Chariots of Fire, Towne quips, "If you're doing a movie about Seabiscuit, you don't want two guys in gunny sacks" playing the horse.
Towne makes an astute summation of the film in his commentary track when he explains, "One of the underlying themes about Personal Best is how do you compete against someone you really love? And I think the answer is you don't." According to Towne and to his film, you're always competing against yourself. The realization of this interesting theme is one of the best reasons for watching Personal Best, even if you have to sit through a flat lesbian romance and an infuriating male lead.
Judge Jennifer Malkowski hereby awards the bronze medal to Personal Best's sports story. And to its lesbian story—perhaps the copper medal? The rusty iron medal? The licorice medal?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Robert Towne, Scott Glenn, Kenny Moore
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