Movie of the Week: ‘Personal Best’

June is Pride Month, so our Movies of the Week will be LGBTQ-themed.  Let’s start the celebration with a look back at the 1980s, writer/director Robert Towne’s “Personal Best”!

“Personal Best” (1982) – A few drops of water fall on the bone-dry earth, and once the camera pulls back, it reveals that a track athlete anxiously anticipates the starter’s gun to fire. With long blonde locks and dressed in tight-fitting polyester athletic wear, Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is about to race in the hurdles at Hayward Field in Eugene, OR during the 1976 Olympic Trials.  Unfortunately, once the event starts and then sadly ends, we watch her struggle badly.

She does not come close to placing.

Mariel Hemingway as Chris Cahill

Dejected, defeated, and with the maturity of an adolescent, she sobs as her father provides her only “comfort”, but later that night, Chris’s world changes when she meets a competing athlete, Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly). An older and seasoned track wonder, Tory – who specializes in the pentathlon – immediately takes a liking to Chris and talks her coach (Scott Glenn) in letting this inexperienced and unworldly young woman train with his track team at Cal Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

This is the backdrop of writer/director Robert Towne’s highly engaging story.

“Personal Best” broke barriers 40 years ago with its non-traditional subject matter of female athletics and lesbian relationships, and he doesn’t shy away from either topic. 

On the contrary, he embraces them. 

Scott Glenn as Coach Terry Tingloff

Towne captures an insider’s look at track and field training as Chris progresses from a faulty novice who cannot successfully push from her runner’s block to someone capable of Olympic glory.  In a few key and highly effective sequences, we watch Chris and Tory compete like two warriors while sounds of labored breathing fill our eardrums. Make no mistake, these women are athletes, and Donnelly is natural for the part since she’s a former Olympic hurdler, but Hemingway looks and acts like she belongs right alongside Donnelly in a real-life Olympic event.

Utterly believable as jocks, Tory trains and works with Chris like a doula towards a woman without a child to bear.  Their relationship, however, quickly becomes sexual, and they express all that could manifest with an intimate relationship, including joy and passion, but also insecurity and jealously. Tory and Chris get caught in the twisted and tangled emotional and physical web of their creation, but in life, sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants.

Patrice Donnelly and Mariel Hemingway as Tory Skinner and Chris Cahill, respectively

Unfortunately, sometimes, we pay a steep price.  This specific price elevates an intriguing premise and strong performances by Hemingway and Donnelly to a classic sports film and a close examination of the human condition.

Image and Trailer credits: Warner Bros.

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