Personal Best

I consider myself lucky. A couple of months back, I pretty much just happened to show up at the Guild 45th one night for a sneak preview of a movie that, judging by the newspaper advertisement, featured Mariel Hemingway in a running outfit. That was all I knew. I think it’s a great way to experience any movie – just off the street like that, without preconceptions or expectations. I’m saying this because I think that by the time this movie – Personal Best – opens (which, I understand, will be before this newsletter appears), it will probably be impossible not to pretty much know its subject matter. So I must tell you that watching Personal Best that first time, as it sidled up to its broach its delicate subject, was rather exciting. It’s not a lesser movie if you know what’s going to happen, but you lose just that shading of the movie-watching experience. If you don’t know about Personal Best, don’t read any more anywhere – just go!

Okay. Personal Best, directed, written, and produced by Robert Towne, has a plot structure that doesn’t seem to unusual – two athletes fall into an intimate relationship that is strained when they wind up competing against each other. This time around, they both happen to be women, and I suppose that’s why Personal Best may be controversial. But anyone who stays away from this one is going to be missing a very special film. Towne, in his first directorial effort, has imbued the film with a depth of character and a richness of atmosphere that ring remarkably true down to the last detail.

Early on, we see a TV commercial for Clairol with the ad line: “This I do for me.” And indeed, it’s a movie about personal growth and self-discovery that generously acknowledges how much other people matter on the bumpy road to physical and emotional maturity. Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is a naturally gifted, ill-trained hurdler; her odyssey toward her “personal best” is shaped by her overbearing parents, a deceptively tough-talking coach (Scott Glenn), her supportive, funkily-sketched track-and-field teammates, a Gold Medal-winning water polo player (Kenny Moore), and particularly her roomie, the more experienced – but equally vulnerable – Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly). It’s a movie full of people needing people. Towne seems to believe that a personal best is far more important than beating others in competition; at the same time, even a significant personal best – something that one must draw from within – would be nearly impossible (and probably worthless) without the stimulating contributions of others.

What makes Personal Best so exhilarating and memorable is Towne’s uncanny knack for creating authentically live-in spaces and scenes. A summer night sprawled in front of the tube with a few empty brews around becomes absolutely the right prelude for a first kiss. A party that throbs with pop music and petty jealousies is so on-target it’ll have you checking to see if you recognize anybody there. Some of Towne’s success in establishing the almost palpable atmosphere lies in the selection of popular songs (they really root the movie in the period from ’76 to about ’80) that almost – but never really obviously – provide a commentary on the main relationship: “You Make Lovin’ Fun,” “What a Fool Believes,” “It’s Over.” But more than that, the performances of his actors reveal a direction Towne seems interested in; Hemingway, Glenn, and Moore don’t really seem to be engaging in any kind of acting we’ve seen before, speaking their lines as though every word was a bit of a surprise. And from an Olympic-class hurdler named Patrice Donnelly, Towne gets a performance of such astonishing spiritual beauty that it’s hard to believe Personal Best wouldn’t be a completely different movie without her. (It’s probably unfair to comment on a sneak preview that doesn’t pretend to be a final cut, but one of Donnelly’s best scenes, a breathtaking emotional breakdown towards the end of the film, has been cut from the final release version.)

All the athletes are seen preparing for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the knowledge that the USA didn’t send a team that year hangs over Personal Best like the Pearl Harbor of From Here to Eternity. But it isn’t used in a terribly ironic way; instead, that historic fact reinforces the film’s most deeply-felt belief about the importance of individual achievement. At the last track meet for the would-be Medal winners, a sportscaster glumly describes the qualifying athletes as “all dressed up … and no place to go.” It is testimony to the emotional power and enchanting rhythms of Personal Best that we immediately realize just how very wrong that pronouncement is.

First published The Informer, March 1982

This is a youthful piece of writing, by someone at loose ends in the immediate aftermath of college, weirdly moved by nostalgia for my college years (76 to 80, the film’s exactly time span). You should have things to champion at that moment, and this was one of mine. Still, no apologies for loving the movie. I have a memory that Towne was at the Guild 45th preview (the Guild is a venerable Seattle arthouse), and that Warren Beatty was also there. Donnelly competed in the 1976 Olympics; here she gives the performance of the year. She did a few more acting jobs, including American Anthem, and served as an advisor on Without Limits, Towne’s movie about the runner Steve Prefontaine.

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