Personal Best (1982)

Personal Best (1982), written, produced and directed by Robert Towne.

Women's track and field is the subject and this is a lovely presentation of the sweat and endurance of a team training for the Olympics, using actual events and the real athletes.

The foreground story is the relationship between Mariel Hemingway (age 21) and Patrice Donnelly, 11 years older. Young love is intense and disruptive, but also temporary. Someone is always hurt.

Hemingway trained for months and she plausibly belongs with the team. It helps that her character starts timidly ("no speed, no guts", says the coach), acquiring confidence with time. Hemingway had not been acting for very long and her natural style might seem amateurish in other films, but it works here.

They were fortunate to have Patrice Donnelly, an athlete of amazing grace, and rather good in her first acting role. To be blunt: not all actresses can be convincing lesbians, but she's got it.

Scott Glenn is the coach, a colossal jerk but getting his athletes where they need to go.

The film has a split personality of sorts: although a celebration of women's athletics it also features full nudity and many shots of lithe women's bodies. The director was unapologetic: bodies in motion -- particularly slow motion -- are sensuous. (The right bodies with a good photographer, I might add). In a notorious segment, the slow-motion camera isolates on a series of women's crotches as they go over backwards in the high jump.

A bit of male nudity, too. He said the movie convention of people wearing underwear when they get out of bed after sex is ridiculous.

This was Robert Towne's first film as director. He was a renowned screenwriter, known for The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974) and Shampoo (1975) among others, and he was an uncredited script-doctor for a huge list of other famous films. It is odd that his own script for this film seems a bit slack to me. It is a good story and is well presented, but maybe the non-actors in the cast and use of real competitions impeded the dramatic flow.

As it turned out, the US boycotted the 1980 Olympics. This is used in the film, but almost in passing. You would expect more dramatic trauma from the team. On the good side: the actual athletes were then available to be in the film.

Available on DVD with a commentary track by the director, Scott Glenn and Kenny Moore, another first-time acting athlete who plays the second love interest.