Directed By: Robert Towne
Starring: Mariel Hemingway, Scott Glenn, Patrice Donnelly, Kenny Moore
Robert Towne's Personal Best focuses on the lives of Olympic-level track and field athletes. Mariel Hemingway plays Chris Cahill, a hurdler competing in the 1976 Olympic Trials. She does not have much success, but she does strike up a new friendship with more experienced pentathlete Tory Skinner (Donnelly), which blossoms into a romantic relationship. Tory sees untapped potential in Chris, who is being coached by her father, and recommends her to her own coach, Terry Tingloff (Glenn). Tingloff agrees to take on Chris as a non-scholarship athlete. Chris quickly distinguishes herself, earning a scholarship, and Tingloff encourages her to train as a pentathlete. Chris finds her relationship with Tory tested as they begin to compete athletically in hopes of qualifying for the 1980 Olympic Games.
Towne's first effort as a director is an interesting glimpse into the life of world class athletes. Intent on getting the portrayal of athleticism right, Towne took the unusual approach of filling his cast with actual world class athletes including pentahtlete Patrice Donnelly and marathon runner Kenny Moore in two of the four leading roles. While their performances are not as polished as a professional actor, they look, speak, and move like real athletes, bringing a sense of authenticity to the film that other films such as the previous year's Chariots of Fire never approached. Mariel Hemingway, to her credit, manages to blend in with the real athletes convincingly. Glenn is also very convincing as a coach with a laser focus on excellence who is willing to go to almost any length to coax it from his athletes.
The film was somewhat controversial upon its initial release due to its frank depiction of a lesbian relationship, scenes of casual frontal nudity, and depictions of athletes and coaches using recreational drugs. While none of the athletes are shown using performance enhancing drugs, there is an amusing scene of one athlete with a guitar performing a song about the subject. Towne presents all of these elements in a very matter of fact way, but may have miscalculated the ability of a 1982 audience to accept these things in a matter of fact way. Whether or not this was a commercial miscalculation, it actually works for the film as a whole for mature viewers who can keep themselves from freaking out over such things. It makes sense that athletes would be comfortable with their bodies, and it is completely believable that some would be using drugs. History and ESPN news reports have borne this out convincingly over the ensuing years.
The focus on getting the details right does at times seem to take precedence over the film's narrative, which shifts in emphasis unevenly between the Chris-Tory relationship and a detailing of the progress of Chris' training. The intent seems to be to emphasize that Chris is ultimately on her own in pursuing her athletic goals, but it deflates the tension associated with how the Chris-Tory relationship will resolve itself in the film's final acts. Despite the lack of balance between these threads, they do at least come together at the film's conclusion. When the film was originally conceived by Towne, the goal of the characters was a straightforward qualification for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. When the USA subsequently boycotted the 1980 games, Towne incorporated it into the story in such a way that it enhanced the film's pre-existing theme about the Olympic ideal of competition without hitting the viewer over the head with it.
The 16:9 enhanced transfer captures the look of the film about as perfectly as one could hope for in a standard definition release. Other than some low intensity ringing around high contrast edges in one scene (a conversation between Glenn and Hemingway outdoors), I have very few criticisms of this presentation. Detail is outstanding. The film looks very much like a product of its era, a bit more diffuse and grainy than most modern films, but that is what it is supposed to look like.
Like the image, the sound is a similarly well rendered by this Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track. The film has a very creative sound design that is done justice with excellent fidelity and dynamics.
The extras consist of the film's theatrical trailer and an informative commentary form Robert Towne, Scott Glenn, and Kenny Moore. They all sit together, and it sounds like they were wearing clip-on microphones. This results in levels that occasionally vary causing me to have to strain to make out some of Towne and Moore's comments, and passages of heavy sibilance during some of Glenn's comments. These technical nits aside, all three participants offer comments on all of the things you would expect (controversy surrounding the depiction of sexuality and casual nudity, athletes as actors, actors as athletes, the 1980 Moscow Olympics boycott, adjustments made to the production due to the 1981 writers strike, etc.) and quite a few other topics. Towne is a pretty good raconteur, so while his anecdotes rarely make a long story short, he at least makes them interesting. On the technical side, he also offers notes on things such as his working methods as a director and the unusual ways they created certain sound effects.
The film comes in a standard Amaray-style case with cover art derived from the film's original promotional art featuring a large image of Mariel Hemingway. The back cover graphic incorrectly identifies Kenny Moore as "Kevin" in one place, which will hopefully be corrected in a future printing.
Robert Towne's Personal Best is an interesting and frank depiction of the world of an Olympic level track and field athlete. It is presented on DVD in an outstanding audio and video presentation. Extras consist of a trailer and an informative commentary from Towne and the film's male leads.
[PG]Personal Best DVD[/PG]