Going for Gold – Rediscovering ‘Personal Best’ (US 1982 – 124 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - March 16, 2015
Going for Gold – Rediscovering ‘Personal Best’ (US 1982 – 124 mins)

Although the United States ultimately boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games for political reasons, the lovingly shot movie ‘Personal Best’ focuses on a group of US competitors as they vie for a place on the track-and-field team for the Games. A gripping and effective backstage sports drama, it deftly chronicles the personal and professional achievements of a group of aspiring American hopefuls.

After unsuccessfully competing in the 1976 Olympic trials, promising Pentathlete Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) meets Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly), an experienced track and field competitor. Forming a close bond, their friendship soon develops into a romantic relationship, which upsets the team’s coach Terry Tinghoff (Scott Glenn). Further complications later arise when Chris begins a relationship with popular swimmer Denny Stites (Kenny Moore).

I think Mariel Hemingway gives her best performance here as the bisexual Chris, and would give another excellent turn the following year in the unsettling biopic ‘Star 80’ (’83), playing tragic Playmate Dorothy Stratton. Tory was well-played by real-life 100 meter hurdle star Patrice Donnelly, while the always reliable Scott Glenn is suitably athletic as Terry Tinghoff, the girl’s strict track coach. Glenn perhaps remains best-known for his role as bespectacled FBI agent Jack Crawford in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (’91).

Making his impressive directorial debut, acclaimed writer Robert Towne does a fine job and employs many close-up shots that put you right into the story. While the track scenes are well handled, it’s really the relationship between Hemingway and Donnelly that succeeds the most, as you find yourself genuinely caring for these two characters. Towne had earlier written the screenplays for the outstanding Jack Nicholson movies ‘The Last Detail’ (’73) and ‘Chinatown’ (’74), and polished up numerous Warren Beatty pictures, including ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (’67) and ‘Shampoo’ (’75).

Many real-life athletes can be spotted in the background and the authentic lesbian scenes are handled with sensitivity, coming across as genuine as well as erotic. The sweaty and realistic track scenes are exciting to watch, and you really warm to these likable characters that are not afraid to make sacrifices and take risks both on and off the field.

An under-rated human drama, ‘Personal Best’ is also an absorbing sports picture buoyed by natural performances and moments of emotional depth. Unlike the disappointed hopefuls in the movie, ‘Personal Best’ is a definite winner!

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