Like all good people, I am currently obsessed with the Olympics. I was hoping that I would be able to post an Olympic-related film review every day during the games but, unfortunately, regular life got in the way and it didn’t happen. I’ll try to post what I can today and then, for the rest of this upcoming week, I will be concentrating on reviewing films that have been nominated for best picture.
(Interestingly enough, only one Olympic-related film has been nominated for best picture and I reviewed Chariots of Fire years ago.)
The 1982 film Personal Best is a movie that I recorded off of Cinemax last year, specifically so I could review it during the Winter Games. That may have been a mistake on that part because Personal Best doesn’t actually deal with the Winter Games. Though it’s a film about athletes training to compete in the Olympics, they’re all runners, swimmers, and pole vaulters. In short, they’re all hoping to compete at the Summer Games (which, for my money, are nowhere near as much fun as the Winter Games). On top of that, no one in Personal Best actually gets to compete at the Olympics.
Of course, that wasn’t how things were supposed to go originally. While doing research for this review, I discovered that Personal Best had quite a long and somewhat tortured production history. The directorial debut of the famous (and famously slow) screenwriter Robert Towne, Personal Best was originally meant to showcase athletes preparing for the 1980 Summer Olympics. However, shortly after production began in 1980, it was announced that the United States would be boycotting the Olympic Games and the script was hastily changed to reflect that fact. Shortly after the boycott was announced, production was put on hold when the Screen Actors Guild went on strike. In what the New York Times described as being “a ploy to allow the movie to become an independent production and resume shooting during the strike,” Towne filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. The end result of that lawsuit was that David Geffen stepped in and financed the film.
This led to yet another lawsuit, this one filed by Towne against Geffen. Towne claimed that Geffen forced him to sign a “coerced agreement” that not only lost him the rights to a script he had been working on about Tarzan but also left him dead broke. Geffen, in that same New York Times article, is quoted as saying, “Robert Towne took a picture budgeted at $7 million – ‘Personal Best’ – and made it incompetently for $16 million,” and that he agreed to take over financing because, ‘no other studio would pick the film up because Robert Towne had spent $5 million, and there wasn’t a coherent scene in the entire movie.”
I know what you’re saying. “That’s great, Lisa, but what’s the actual film about?”
Personal Best, for the most part, is about bodies in motion. Oh, don’t get me wrong. There’s a plot. Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is a young runner who hopes to someday compete in the Olympics. She finds herself torn between following the advice of her lover, Torry (Patrice Donnelly) and the advice of her manipulative coach (Scott Glenn) and things get even more complicated when she enters into a heterosexual romance with a swimmer named Denny (Kenny Moore). Both Towne and the film deserve credit for the forthright way that it portrays Chris and Torry’s relationship and also for its unapologetic portrayal of women who are just as competitive and determined to win as men.
But really, the film doesn’t seem to be that concerned with the story that it’s telling. The film itself is far more interested in the images of professional athletes competing and training. This is one of those films that is full of slow-motion scenes of people running down tracks and attempting to jump over hurdles. Most of the cast was made up of actual athletes and Towne’s camera lovingly captures every single ripple of muscle as they move across the screen. Watching the film, it was hard not to be reminded of the way Leni Reifenstahl fetishized athleticism in Olympia. This is a film that loves, celebrates, and comes close to worshiping athletes. That wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that the film lingers for so long on those bodies that it’s hard not to eventually get bored with them. I mean, there’s only so many times you can watch someone jump over a hurdle in slow motion before you don’t care anymore.
And it turns out that, no matter how impressive the athletes may look, you do need to tell a compelling story, especially if, like Personal Best, your film is over two hours long. As written, Chris Cahill is not particularly likable or even that interesting. Her life revolves around competition and she really has no other interests. That may be a realistic portrayal of what it takes to be the best but there’s a reason why most sports biopics are heavily fictionalized. Chris spends a lot of time getting mad and crying and it gets a little bit old after a while. Perhaps it would be different if we believed that Chris actually was one of the best runners in the world but the film never quite convinces us. (It doesn’t help that Mariel Hemingway spends the entire film surrounded by actual track and field athletes. Hemingway does her best with the role but it’s always easy to tell who is actually an athlete and who is just acting.) On the other hand, the coach and Torry are far more interesting characters but both of them keep getting pushed to the side.
Personal Best is a film that will be best appreciated by people who are as obsessed with athletics as the film is.