Although screenwriter Robert Towne's directorial debut fell largely on deaf ears when it was released in 1982 "Personal Best" remains a powerful examination of high-stakes female athletes during the late ‘70s, an era when smoking pot and drinking beer were part of America’s cultural landscape — even for Olympic contenders.
Most significant is Towne’s pitch-perfect depiction of a lesbian relationship that goes through various stages of bliss, disagreements, and outside pressures over the course of a few years. The auteur’s striking ability to use the sexuality of his story's two lead female characters as an integral aspect of their ambitious motivations is an impeccable example of eroticism's function within a narrative framework.
The author of such film classics as "The Last Detail" (1973) and "Chinatown" (1974) flexes his writing muscles to conjure the atmosphere Olympic-level female athletes who eat, breathe, and live for the opportunity to conquer their opponents, as well as their own mental and physical limitations.
In a role that should have made Mariel Hemingway the biggest female star in Hollywood for the ‘80s, ‘90s, and beyond, the indisputable beauty plays track-and-field runner Chris Cahill. Chris’s troubled promise as a professional athlete starts to look up after an unfortunate restaurant episode puts her in the car of Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly), a track-and-field star with an established coach. Romance blossoms between Chris and Tory who shack up in Tory’s San Luis Obispo apartment. Tory imposes on her coach Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn) to give Chris a chance during a routine practice. Chris suitably impresses Coach Terry, who harbors no illusions about the tricky nature of Chris’s and Tory’s romantic relationship within the demands of competing for a spot on the 1980 Summer Olympic Team.
A touch of American politics provides a backdrop for the story due to President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games as punishment for Russia’s recent invasion of Afghanistan. A television news commentator announces during the film’s climax competition, the competing athletes are, “all dressed up with no place to go.”
“Personal Best” takes a matter-of-fact approach toward the intrinsic sensuality of professional female athletes. Towne uses a sauna as a frequent meeting place for the girls’ team to congregate in the nude to laugh and joke, but also to carry on serious discussions. Chris’s bisexuality is not commented upon, but rather comes about organically after competitive circumstance separates her from Tory. A frank bit of innocent humor comes during an intimate scene between Chris and her new boyfriend when she follows him to the bathroom to hold him while he pees. The scene perfectly captures Chris’s fearless spirit of childlike curiosity and determination.
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