An Olympic Film Review: Personal Best (dir by Robert Towne)


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.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #78: American Anthem (dir by Albert Magnoli)


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“He’s thrown a tripus!  Steve Tevere has thrown a tripus!  The most outstanding dismount tonight, or any night!” 

— Really Excited Announcer In American Anthem (1986)

Way back in March, I dvr’d a movie called American Anthem off of Encore.  I did this for two reasons.  First off, the film was described as having something to do with gymnastics and that’s always been my favorite part of the Summer Olympics.  Secondly, any film from the 1980s that has the word “American” in the title is sure to be fun or, at the very least, achingly sincere.

When I finally got around to watching American Anthem, I wasn’t expecting much.  The film turned out to be largely what I expected it would be: the story of gymnasts hoping to qualify for the Olympics and find some personal redemption along the way.  All of the stock characters were present.  We had Steve Tevere (Mitch Gaylord), the brooding rebel who had to decide between pursuing his Olympic dreams or working in a garage for the rest of his life.  We had Steve’s girlfriend, Julie (Janet Jones), who had to learn to be humble before she could be great.  We had Kirk (Stacy Maloney), Steve’s best friend and fellow gymnast.  We had kinda bitchy Becky Cameron (Maria Anz), who was Julie’s friend and rival.  And then there was Arthur (Andrew White), Julie’s crippled, musician cousin.  And let’s not forget Tracy Prescott (Jenny Ester), the 12 year-old gymnast with the impressive afro.  And, of course, there was Coach Sarnoff (Michael Pataki) who was tough, compassionate, and Russian.  The majority of the cast was made up of real-life gymnasts and, with the exception of the genuinely charismatic Stacy Maloney, they all gave performances that suggested that they should stick with gymnastics.

And yet, despite all of that, I absolutely loved American Anthem.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  For the most part, I loved it for all the wrong reasons.  My love for the film is not the type of love that would lead to me being quoted on the back of a Blu-ray case.  American Anthem is a thoroughly bad film but it’s also compulsively watchable.  From the minute that I started watching it, I became obsessed with American Anthem‘s bizarre ineptness.  Since that first night in March, I’ve rewatched American Anthem a few dozen times.  I’ve lost track of how many times that I have grimaced at the cutesy music that Sarnoff tried to force Julie to use for her floor routine.  I can imitate Becky’s squeal of pain when she’s tries to compete with an injured knee.  Whenever Julie and the girls start to chant, “Kirk!  Kirk!  Kirk!,” I chant with them.  And don’t even get me started on how much I love hearing, “He’s thrown a tripus!”

American Anthem is pure style.  This is one of the few films that I’ve seen that has absolutely no subtext.  There is literally nothing going on beneath the surface.  It’s almost as if somebody dared director Albert Magnoli to make a film that was just one big montage.  This is one of those films where the camera is always moving, the colors are always bright, and the soundtrack is always soaring.  Hardly anyone in the film can actually act but oh my God, everyone looks so good (in a 1986 sort of way, of course).

The other “great” thing about American Anthem is that there’s not a single cliché that the film doesn’t include and, as a result, you really don’t have to pay that much attention to the film to understand what’s going on.  To its credit, this film doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than a collection of clichés.  It’s almost as if the characters themselves realize that they are in a film and understand that they have no choice but to conform to what the audience has been conditioned to expect.

(Hmmm…I guess American Anthem does have a subtext.  And kind of a disturbing one at that!)

For instance, within minutes of meeting and despite having no chemistry, Steve and Julie are in love.  Why?  Because the only reason that they are in the film is to fall in love.  It has to be done.

Steve fights with his father (John Aprea) and we’re never quite sure why, beyond the fact that all brooding rebels fight with their fathers.  When his father shows up to watch his son compete, the triumphant music soars and it no longer matters that he’s been portrayed as being an abusive rageaholic up until that moment.

All of the characters tell us that Coach Sarnoff is the best, despite the fact that we don’t actually see any evidence of that fact.  But Sarnoff has to be the best because nobody ever makes a movie about athletes training under a merely adequate coach.

When Becky suddenly shows up at the final competition with a bandaged knee, it doesn’t matter that we don’t actually see her get injured beforehand or, for that matter, hear anything about it.  All that matters is that, in films like this, someone has to compete with an injury.  Becky is simply playing her part.

American Anthem.  It’s not a particularly good film but it sure is watchable.  And, as I’ve come to realize while writing this review, it’s a bit of an existential nightmare as well!

I don’t think I’m ever going to erase it from my DVR.

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