Rewatching "Personal Best," an Almost-Great Olympic Decathlon Romance

In "Personal Best," the legendary writer Robert Towne set out to make an honest lesbian romance and a movie about training for the Olympics. He sort of succeeded.

by Tom Keiser
Jul 29 2016, 2:21pm

Image via YouTube

To say that the Rio Olympics are shaping up as a clusterfuck even by previous Olympic standards may be downplaying things a bit. Beyond Brazil's struggles with infrastructure and logistics, there's plenty of chaos around the edges. Several athletes are boycotting the Rio Games out of fears of contracting the Zika virus, and now people are complaining that golf is not a real sport. The U.S. track and field team (and its Nike-controlled deep state) are patting themselves on the back because they decided not to sue other athletes for wearing off-brand sneakers. Krusty The Clown is spitting in every fiftieth burger at the thought of Russia's track and field ban. At least we still have an Olympics to complain about, an hour later than everyone else, and honestly the sheer thought of the United States not having a venue to possibly disappoint in basketball is scarier than anything we've seen from Rio.

There was a Summer Olympics in 1980, but not for United States Olympians, who stayed home when the country boycotted the Games in Moscow. That didn't mean that there wasn't a competition to decide who would be on the U.S. Olympic team, though. It was in that strange competitive limbo that the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne set the climax to his long-planned "tasteful lesbian drama," which is about those athletes and some other things besides.

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Personal Best is a look through two windows in American society that were about to be shuttered. There's the gay and lesbian revolution right before the one-two punch of AIDS and "Morning In America" delayed (but not denied) basic human rights to LGBTQ Americans, and there's also the anxious home stretch of the Cold War. Released in 1982 but conceived and filmed during the run up to the Moscow Olympics, Personal Best was praised by mainstream critics for its sensitivity, picked apart by feminist critics for its toothlessness, and pretty much ignored by the general public, making back less than $6 million of its $16 million budget.

It deserves better than that. Personal Best is a good film that could have been great had it been able to address the relationship between its protagonists more openly, and perhaps focused the third act more on the boycott than on the boyfriend that one of the protagonists happens to fall in love with. Actually uttering the word "lesbian" at least once during its 124 minutes might have helped, but details.

Mariel Hemingway is Chris Cahill, a track-and-field star with the will to win and the pressures of being the protagonist in a Tasteful Early 1980s Lesbian Drama. These pressures include training for and (spoiler alert) having to boycott the Moscow Games, and falling in and out of love with the woman who helps Chris achieve her (wait for it) personal best. Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly) succeeds where Chris does not at the 1976 trials, but all of this takes a backseat to romance, and the affair quickly builds from admiration to concern to fart jokes to full-on simulated sex, followed by nearly an hour of them just being "special friends." Personal Best does its, uh, personal best to compartmentalize the torrid lesbian affair from the predictable plot dynamics to come—Chris's inevitable (for plot purposes) break with Tory, and inevitable (for most media at the time) realization that her genuine long-term same-sex relationship was, quite literally, just a college phase.

Tory fails to finish in the top ten in the decathlon at Montreal, but does manage to get the Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn) to coach Chris. Personal Best works best as a lesbian superhero origin story in which we get to see Mariel Hemingway's character transform from a shy teenage hurdler into an elite pentathlete. The scene where Chris and Tory are racing up a sand dune is genuinely thrilling, if somewhat offset by the sight of Scott Glenn lounging around in an open Hawaiian shirt and Daisy Dukes. As Chris and Tory become equals, and then rivals, their relationship—and Towne's depiction of it—takes a nosedive. Chris gets food poisoning before a big meet in Latin America, as one does, and Tory sacrifices her rest so Chris can get better and (spoiler alert) outperform her. Even more disconcerting for Tory is the sight of Chris flirting with a man.

As the romance between Chris and Tory falls apart, so does the film. Coach Tingloff gets into Chris's mind that Tory's training is screwing her up, and so of course the one piece of Tory's advice Chris attempts to use (to adjust her placement in the high jump) fucks up her knee. The relationship is basically over, and while Tory is in San Juan for the 1979 Pan American Games, Chris starts rehabbing and falls in love with Denny, a cardboard cutout of an Olympic swimmer/amateur water polo player who is played by Kenny Moore, a real-life cardboard cutout of an Olympic marathoner. Suddenly it's 1980 and, without the film actually addressing it, the U.S. has boycotted the upcoming Games in Moscow. Against the wishes of Coach Tingloff, Chris reunites with Tory, and eventually Chris and Tory help each other in the 800-meter competition; both make the 1980 U.S. Olympic But Not Really Team. Everyone is happy in the end, but, seriously, are they?

In retrospect, the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics was a well-meaning response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that backfired spectacularly. A generation of athletes were denied their window of peak success, and the geopolitics of it were righteous in all the wrong ways—kicking some Commie ass, on their own turf, would have been pretty sweet. That said, our present post-boycott era means that Olympics and World Cups are now routinely held where human rights—and especially those of the LGBTQ community—are openly denied; for all the happy talk about unity and sportsmanship and competition, today's Olympics can look more like an agent for wasteful government spending and #brands than world peace and understanding.

Personal Best does not even try to fit the struggle of missing out on Moscow into the movie, largely because there was no time, in the movie itself or its production, to adapt to breaking world news. Which is a shame, because the boycott is where the tension should lie, instead of love non-triangles and Scott Glenn making a condescending but awesomely Towne-ian speech about Chuck Noll not having to deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers' lady issues.

And awesomely Towne-ian is pretty awesome. The writer of such all-time classic movies as The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo, and (um) Days Of Thunder, Towne wrote, directed, and produced Personal Best. For a directorial debut, it is perhaps unsurprisingly a little writerly, especially through some clunky early symbolism regarding Chris's wristwatch. There are also quite a few anachronisms, most glaringly an anti-1980 boycott T-shirt that shows up at what is supposed to be the 1976 trials. Legendary cinematographer Michael Chapman—whose credits include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and most importantly Space Jam—does his usual excellent work.

Mariel Hemingway, in her first performance since her breakout role in Manhattan, does what she can to seem, um, Olympian, and it mostly works; she eases her way from youthful naiveté to a more mature form of naiveté. Patrice Donnelly—who, like her character, participated in the Montreal Games and would later be a technical advisor on Robert Towne's other track movie, the Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits—is very good as Tory, and easy to empathize with even in her jealousy. Scott Glenn, who is the best, hits the right blend of laid-back guy and patronizing, gas-lighting asshole in his portrayal of Coach Tingloff, while the long parade of former and future Olympic athletes adds to the authenticity both on and off the track. Sportscaster Charlie Jones says of the runners, "They're all dressed up, with nowhere to go," and could well have been talking about himself; he would have called the track and field events of the 1980 Summer Olympics for NBC but never got the chance. The entire cast elevates the material and first-time direction, but they can only do so much to save the messy final act.

There's something limiting about the premise of Personal Best, and even the title itself, which scans pretty strange in a modern LGBTQ reading. It is perfectly understandable that the Olympic boycott derailed the possibility of a satisfying ending for a movie that was mostly filmed before the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials. That said, any potential drama about not going to the freaking Olympics when you've trained for the past four years is replaced with mind games, lesbian bed death, and Third Act Bisexuality™. There is a good movie to be made about queer love and sports; stories such as the 1970s best-selling book The Front Runner proved that there was and is an audience for them. As much as we can give credit to Towne, Hemingway, Donnelly, and everyone else who tried to make Personal Best a definitive movie about same-sex love—and they did the best they could under the circumstances—it would be nice to see some filmmaker take a shot at improving upon it. There's a lot of drama to find here, and it would be nice for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community to get another shot at a film that shows them at their (one more and I'm done) personal best.

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