DIRECTOR: Robert Towne
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Michael Chapman
EDITORS: Jacqueline Cambas
MUSIC: Jill Frazer
SCREENPLAY: Robert Towne
Mariel Hemingway – Chris Cahill
Patrice Donnelly – Tory Skinner
Scott Glenn – Terry Tingloff
Jim Moody – Roscoe Travis
Kari Gosswiller – Penny Brill
Jodi Anderson – Nadia Anderson
Kenny Moore – Denny Stites
With the exception of swimming and golf I was never big on sports, and definitely not team sports. I never liked participating when I was younger, and watching football or basketball on TV (or, heaven forfend, in a stadium or arena) is my idea of an afternoon from boredom Hell, or, as Cole Porter would have it, my idea of nothing to do.
But “Personal Best” engages me in a very private way.
At its heart the film is a crisp and moving Bildungsroman, the story of the athletic and emotional coming-of-age of a gifted woman runner, Chris Cahill, engrosingly portrayed by Mariel Hemingway. But this production is about track-and-field competition the way Hemingway’s grandfather’s The Old Man and the Sea is about marlin fishing: every story must take place somewhere.
The opening sequence puts on display a girl, Chris, who loses an important tryout; the film ends with Chris, the woman, winning something even more important than first place in the eight-hundred meters. How she got from there to here is the absorbing story of “Personal Best”.
Robert Towne wrote the screenplay, and it’s a classy creation indeed – not as superior as his writing for “Chinatown”  or “Tequila Sunrise” , but even if it isn’t Towne’s personal best, I’ll take his second best any day of this or any other year. As in the case of “Tequila Sunrise” he also directed the film.
Runners, jumpers, shot putters – the track-and-field athletes – are, like swimmers, loners. Relays aside, they depend only on themselves, are only themselves responsible for their performances, train only for themselves. This aspect of the sport I know from my own teen years as a rough-water swimmer – two punishing miles a day in open ocean, one mile on race day – and it rings true. Chris, like her lover and competitor, Tory, are locked into themselves, each in anxious competition with her own last performance; the whole thing becomes a mind-game to get the heart to do what the head asks but the body mocks. This psychology is effectively captured in the film.
Although the women are the stars, behind – or, rather, above – them stand the men. The opening of the film has Chris excusing herself and apologizing to her father for her failure; he is not the most sensitive of men. And the intemperate and vulgar exhortations (if that’s the adequate word) of her coach to Tory intercuts this scene to underscore the point: the women are supposed to please the male coaches. To the extent that Scott Glenn’s first-rate portrayal of Terry Tingloff, the coach, is accurate, these are men who seem to take out on their young protégées their own inchoate angers at not coaching men’s professional football teams instead of women’s track. Terry is a qualified sadist, and a raging sexist to boot. He therefore meshes well with the apparent masochism of runners that is well illustrated in the sweating, agonized close-ups of the women’s suggestively orgasmic facial expressions as they strive around the unending oval.
It is in the competition sequences that this film really comes into its own. Towne and the cinematographer, Michael Chapman, have transformed these formulaic passages into things of genuine beauty. Chris and Tory are both beautiful women, extraordinarily so – slim, young, lithe, muscular, physically outstanding, with – as they say — legs that go on forever and bodies that won’t stop. The phrase ‘poetry in motion’ comes unequivocally to mind.
A kind of aestheticized eroticism informs the athletic contests themselves, a spill-over from the not inconsiderable love interest in the film. A fair amount of what I think of as pubic [sic] nudity is present here, in the communal steams the women take, and in the love-making of Tory and Chris. These caressing visual encomia to the exquisite physicality of the female body, both through the languid reposes of the bedroom and the supreme exertions in the stadium, evoke in my mind not only the serenity of Myron’s male diskbolos but also the contortions of Michelangelo’s creations, and I for one think of the female figural traditions of the great nineteenth-century classicizing painters of L’Académie française. This patent eroticism of female athletics is nowhere more ostentatiously and in-your-face on view than in the almost coitally repetitive shots of these beautiful women, clad in flimsy shorts, their legs ostentatiously spread very wide apart, practicing back flips over a long bar on the high jump.
Tory, the older of the two women, takes Chris under her wing, and becomes her lover. Chris is a very needy young woman, and Tory needs to be needed. The coach, however, sees their love as killing the killer instinct a world-class athlete requires, and they break up. Although Chris gets involved with a man who had won two Olympic golds in swimming, she does to forget what Tory did for her.
In the final race Chris defies her coach and, in a sense sacrificing herself to keep Tory’s immediate rival boxed in, she assures that Tory makes the team for the Moscow Olympics (which, in the event, thanks to the powers that were, never actually took place as far as American athletes were concerned). This is utterly classical: it is a theme that reverberates from the pages of Vergil’s Aeneid, specifically in Book 5, where Nisus spoils the chances for Salius so that his (Nisus’) lover, Euryalus, can come in first [itself a variation modeled on a vaguely similar event in Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad, where Athena assures Odysseus’ victory in the foot-race by messing up front-runner Aias]. By losing the race, Chris wins her independence – the smirking look she gives the coach as she faces him afterwards is deliciously satisfying – and, much to my private personal enchantment, validates the utter delight of a traditional athletic theme with a literary provenience of some 3,000 years.
And ‘deliciously satisfying’ is just the phrase I would use to describe this film itself.