Personal Best has a quality rare in movies now: ambition worn lightly. This looks like a small, simple movie, but it’s hardly modest. It invites you to look at a few basic results of the peremptory, almost arrogant leap it took even before the lights went out in the theater. You don’t see the leap itself, but the exhilaration of it lingers on the screen.
It is praise to say that I had no idea four years were passing in Personal Best. Though time-and-place titles take the characters—women amateur track-and-field athletes—from the 1976 Olympic trials to the 1980 ones, the spirit of the movie isn’t the struggle of change but a resolute joy in the potential of what already exists. The women’s excellence, competitiveness, sexuality, and concern for each other aren’t issues, or gifts that the screenwriter lets them earn after a hundred pages; they are given.
From the start, the movie is like a limbered-up athlete, easily stretching and extending itself in funny, spontaneous shifts of tone. At the 1976 Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) loses her best event, the hurdles, and tries to account to her father, in a tiny, breaking voice, for what went wrong, while Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly, a dark, lithe, elegant athlete making her debut as an actress) wins the shot-put, walks over to her hardboiled-looking coach (Scott Glenn), and suddenly puts her arms around his thighs and lifts him straight up into the air. That night, in a restaurant, Tory’s elation winds down into what’s-it-all-for-anyway glumness after too many beers, and just as she breaks out of that mood with a laugh at one of her own suggestive wisecracks, young Chris, across the room, collapses in sick exhaustion. Tory offers to drive her home.
In the next scenes—Chris sobbing in the car while the older woman’s controlled face strains toward her with tact and reason and sympathy, and then a cut to a close-up of Chris giggling, her part-Indian cheekbones burnished as much by the gleeful abandon of friendship as by the coppery light in Tory’s apartment—there is a range of relationships that other movies take an hour to lead up to. In Personal Best there is no need to lead up to them—they are already there. The “intriguing problem” that one huffy critic of the movie wanted to watch—“lesbianism in women’s athletics”—is thrown out the window in the instant between Tory’s scared kiss on Chris’s mouth and the two women’s reaction: they both laugh.
Their intimacy is threatened by the coach, who asks Chris to enter the pentathlon, Tory’s event; he doesn’t care in principle if they have an affair—“Young love,” he sneers tolerantly—but thinks it will ruin their “killer” instincts. The two women try to hold on to their trust, but the coach chips away at it, and during a separation Chris falls in love with a water-polo player, Denny (Kenny Moore, an Olympic marathon runner turned sportswriter, who, like Patrice Donnelly, gives an uncommonly comfortable performance). His whiny feminine voice disinfects his role of hetero-heroism; he simply seems like someone who would appeal to Chris, and because of the movie’s tone of possibility in the here-and-now, her liking him doesn’t look like a covert argument for “maturing” into heterosexuality.
Personal Best has been called undramatic, because the filmmaker doesn’t see its material as a set of problems. But there are other kinds of drama. Robert Towne, who wrote, produced, and directed the movie, refreshed the standards for intelligent Hollywood screenwriting with his scripts for The Last Detail and Shampoo and his Oscar-winning one for Chinatown. In those, the characters were trapped—by literal imprisonment, by an inability to accept their own erotic natures, by a wrongheaded idea of truth; there were only passages of how it might feel to break free.
It is appropriate that with the first script Towne has also directed, he instinctively chooses to liberate his characters from all those traps. And dramatically, his choice is worthy of Kurosawa. I’m not comparing Towne with Kurosawa. But it is Kurosawa (not Leni Riefenstahl, whose Olympia has been invoked in reviews of Personal Best) who is the master of morality and character in physical movement; and Towne, too, in his casual way, uses human bodies in expressive motion to test and explore a proposition about how to live. Suppose women are free to do as they like, he says: now what?
What are the consequences of a woman’s being as strong as a man? Of her being free to make love with women and men? How does she compete on an equal footing with a man or woman she loves? (Not whether to, but what does it look like, where are the tensions?) One of the ways Towne explores these questions is by showing how ideals of independence and strength give rise to a new sense of physical beauty.
Mariel Hemingway trained for a year to perform in all her pentathlon events convincingly. You would have to be blind not to see her broad shoulders and strong golden legs as the assets of a Diana, but she also puts her big broad feet right in front of the camera, and because you have already seen where they can take her as an athlete, they are beautiful, too, when their power is checked—when they gently tickle Tory’s calves or dangle off the end of a bed in which Denny is eating toast. Hemingway’s fierce dark eyebrows and prominent cheekbones come to seem not the trademarks of a movie star but signs of self-determination; and what might be a flaw—the nervous little girl’s voice—is like the seal of common humanity on perfection.
Some other filmmakers could make you see Mariel Hemingway in this light, but Towne has the same regard for everyone: for the contrast, in Donnelly, of the fear on her aloof, taut face and the loving curve of her long neck caressing the heavy sphere in the shot-put, the rippling of her brown arms as she crosses a finish line in slow motion; for Cindy Gilbert (a former Olympic pentathlete) wickedly licking her lips with desire for the high jump; for Emily Dole, the big black shot-putter. Dole’s entrance into one scene is announced by the jiggling of a parked car that two people are sitting in; by the end of the movie, in a montage of warm-ups for the final trials, a view of her round belly bouncing lightly across the screen is a reference full of marveling affection. There is a moment when a huge male discus-thrower, being bossed around by the coach, stolidly wanders off into a sunny field, carrying a striped beach umbrella over his head like a parasol. The audience of the Sutton Theater laughed with delight, and I don’t think any of us could have said why. We were under the spell of a filmmaker who, like a good choreographer, had taken us beyond familiar definitions of wit and prettiness.
It must have been a pleasure for Michael Chapman, the cinematographer of Taxi Driver and of Raging Bull’s black-and-white images of anguish in motion, to turn to these sun-warmed, healthy bodies. The idea that he and Towne are using the camera voyeuristically, and that women must be protected from them by several manly, heroic film critics,* is preposterous. Visually, Personal Best is designed around the autonomous movements of the women. When they are still, the camera never prowls their bodies. When they move, they make their own trajectories through the frame. If the camera moves with them, it goes from the general to the specific—from the sources of athletic power, the legs and pelvis, to a particular face. (Pornography looks at a specific woman and then debases her into generalized body parts; with Towne, looking at the body parts makes him fall in love with the whole woman.) In the high jump, the hinge of the movement is the crotch (and too bad if you can’t stand seeing it), but each character pushes her entire body into the frame, and the payoff is the unique reaction on her face. Every photographic choice—the distance of the camera, a change from slow-motion to normal speed—is attuned to the women’s feelings and picks out the individuality in physical movement.
Towne has such a sensitive eye for behavior, and the actors are so natural, that when he bears down on an observation, it stands out as clunkily obvious. He doesn’t need a plot point about a misplaced X of adhesive tape, used as a high-jump mark, to injure Chris and sow a little paranoia among her, Tory, and the coach; Chris is already distracted enough to hurt herself by a lapse of concentration. Towne’s ear for behavior has never been better. One of his signatures is dirty talk at the wrong moment. Memorably, in Chinatown, it was Jake’s telling the smutty joke about the Chinaman while unaware of Mrs. Mulwray’s presence. But in Personal Best, these tangents don’t feel like cross-purpose or unease. The dialogue and incidents are mostly built of delicate misunderstandings, but they are little hinges turning experience this way and that, until it seems as if all the impulses in life are free to exist simultaneously. And the passages of pure physical determination unite these impulses so they don’t fly off neurotically in all directions.
It’s one thing for a man to write a movie like Shampoo about a man who enjoys women, and another for him to write and direct one about women. Personal Best is clearly the work of a man—that’s part of its charm—but Towne doesn’t presume to know more about women than they reveal. And he is capable of maternal gestures that include the women but don’t stop at them. When Chris discusses her career with her parents around a dining-room table, the shot solicitously takes in her androgynous little brother, who has nothing to do with the story, sitting on the floor in the next room, talking on the phone. A fond, nervous handshake between Chris and Tory is sealed by a shot of two sparrows skittering on the rainy track.
Towne understands that a man telling a woman what to do, for the best reasons in the world, still occupies a politically tainted position. He accounts for that in his handling of Scott Glenn’s role, the coach, who thinks bullying the women is for their own good. In a scene that begins with the coach at an ironing board, spitting on the iron to touch up a Hawaiian shirt, he tells Chris truths worse than anything the audience could have been thinking about him: “Do you know what that means, when you’re a women’s coach? Jack shit.” (But you saw him wipe a tear from under his dark glasses when Tory lost an event, and perversely yell his pride when Chris ran faster than a man: “Uh-uh, too bad, you just let a pussy beat you, you dumb asshole!”) When Chris gets mad at him, he says she ought to hit him; she does, and he says, “Why do you always have to do what I tell you?” The honesty of this characterization is an act of respect for the women’s independence—and they go their own way.
Personal Best remains Robert Towne’s movie. Even Jean-Luc Godard, in Numéro Deux, couldn’t hand a movie over to its women, however hard he tried. Probably Godard is the only filmmaker who can still bash his head against the problems of sex and power and come up with something original; the small price paid for that is his selfpity. Towne’s nonchalant leap across those problems has an air of self-congratulation—look, Ma, no head—but that’s a small price to pay for the conviction that people already are what is best in them. Amazingly, he can express that conviction without telling lies.
March 18, 1982
Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, described the movie as “undisguished voyeurism,” “nonjudgmental in the way that a porn film is nonjudgmental”; Carlos Clarens, in The Soho News, as “personal voyeuristic fantasy”; Joel Siegel, of WABC-TV, as “the worst kind of exploitation,” “Peeping Tom fantasies.” ↩