Personal Best (1982)

Personal Best (1982)

“The thing to remember is this: the Pentathlon is one event.”

When an aspiring Olympian athlete (Mariel Hemingway) falls for her female trackmate (Patrice Donnelly), her coach (Scott Glenn) worries that their romance will get in the way of their competitive spirit.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Lesbianism
  • Love Triangle
  • Olympics
  • Scott Glenn Films
  • Sports
  • Strong Females

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “controversial, underappreciated film” — “written and directed by Robert Towne (who won the Oscar for his Chinatown script)” — is “an undisguised celebration of the bodies of female athletes.” He describes in detail how often Towne takes advantage of locker rooms, steam baths, bedroom scenes, and “raunchy female dialogue” to “serve [his] purpose,” “taking what we consider tasteless and deviant acts and making them seem perfectly natural and unembarrassing.” As Peary writes, it’s “evident that Towne likes his women” (a little too much) — they “are funny, sensitive, dedicated, self-confident, competitive yet supportive, strong, and, because they’re athletes, beautiful.”

This film was heralded upon its release for its casual treatment of Hemingway and Donnelly’s same-sex romance long before this was de rigeur in cinema. As Peary writes, “We accept Donnelly’s homosexuality and don’t begrudge her initiating the naive Hemingway into a lesbian affair,” even though “it might be true that once Hemingway figures out her self-identity she’ll discover herself to be heterosexual” (what about the possibility of bisexuality?!). He adds: “It’s also interesting that we feel happy that… Hemingway got to experience one” (?) “beneficial and exciting homosexual experience,” since “Hemingway feels no guilt about the affair and no anger towards Donnelly for possibly taking advantage of her.”

Unfortunately, while Towne should (perhaps) be applauded for attempting to normalize bodily interactions across all spheres of life, it’s also impossible not to imagine how much he personally enjoyed filming every… single… close-up… [often slo-mo]… of toned female flesh — and there are oh-so-many during this movie’s two-plus-hour running time; one can’t help thinking somewhat uncomfortably about Leni Riefenstahl’s glorification of athletic prowess in The Olympiad (1936).

Note: In addition to Donnelly, this film is noteworthy for featuring another real-life athlete among its cast: Olympian Kenny Moore as Hemingway’s boyfriend-after-Donnelly.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Mariel Hemingway as Chris Cahill
  • Patrice Donnelly as Tory Skinner
  • Michael Chapman’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing.


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