Astride forward in the portrayal of gay relationships on the screen, Personal Best is a much more interesting phenomenon than a movie. The two female athletes seem natural and normal; they don’t look muscle-bound or speak in bulldyke growls. Having these two wholesome, attractive, talented women make love to each other is a cunning political move, since female homosexuality has always been easier for the public to accept than male. But the gayness is a subtext because Personal Best is primarily a sports movie about achievement—physical and emotional—and the discernment it takes to balance the two.
The competition in Personal Best is both athletic and sexual, creating an extra degree of tension. Tory (Patrice Donnelly), a pentathlon ace and hopeful for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, is attracted to Chris (Mariel Hemingway), first as an athlete, then as a woman. She sees the potential lurking in Chris and does her damnedest to win over her own recalcitrant coach (Scott Glenn) to get Chris on the team. As Chris becomes a pentathlon contender for Moscow, the sexual relationship disintegrates. Each woman is faced with the moral dilemma of winning over the other, and the movie heads toward a final, intelligent statement about what “per-
sonal best” should really mean.
A screenwriter of no mean achievement (Chinatown, Shampoo), Robert Towne, in his directorial debut, captures the painful conflict of lovers competing both inside and outside the bedroom; every word of dialogue rings true. But the main character doesn’t have broad enough shoulders to hold up the weight of the movie. As written by Towne and played by Mariel Hemingway, Chris is an amorphous simp. How Tory, a strong character enacted by an assured actress, could be so enamored of her for so long is bothersome. Tory
overpowers Chris in every scene, and it throws the movie way out of whack.
Nor should Towne have directed his own script: he shows little sense of how to shape his scenes into a fluid narrative. He pastes in slow-motion sequences of athletic strain, which, after Chariots of Fire, have become the most shopworn poetry money can buy. Visually, Personal Best looks like it was shot through a sweating lens: appropriate, but not exactly effective. The raw material in this movie is terrific; it just needed a better coach.
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