Although Personal Best is arguably the second
or third most well-known and influential lesbian film made to
date (behind Go Fish
and Desert Hearts),
it has been joked about for so long that it has surpassed cult
status, and become almost a cliche in the lesbian community. To
wit: it was referenced by Ellen DeGeneres in the famed "Puppy
Episode" of Ellen.
It was particularly important for lesbians searching for identity
in the early 80's who had little else to watch except slasher
films and lesbian vampire flicks. But now, over 20 years later,
the clothes are dated, the film looks dated, and everything has
just gone out of style--except good storytelling, which this film
has in spades.
That's why I think—to paraphrase Kia from Go
Fish—everyone should get past their shallow
fashion requirements and start getting into Personal Best.
In Personal Best, Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway)
is a talented athlete with the ability to go all the way to the
Olympics. She has untapped potential, a fact that is recognized
by Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly), an older pentathlete who takes
Chris under her wing and helps her to explore that potential on
the track. Pretty soon the women start exploring the potential
of other things too. Their emotional and physical relationship
is intense, steamy, and most importantly, very mutual.
After a good beginning and many beautiful and touching scenes,
things in their relationship take a turn for the worse when Chris
gets a maniacal new coach, Terry (Scott Glenn). Not only does
Terry succeed in supplanting Tory as Chris's mentor, but he also
drives a competitive wedge between the two women as they compete
for spots on the 1980 U.S. Olympics team.
When one of the two women suffers a serious injury the suffocating
competition between them comes to a head and their relationship
disintegrates. The relationship doesn't die because they're women.
It doesn't die because of self-loathing or homophobia or any other
reason we might suspect. It dies because the women stop looking
at each other as friends and lovers and let personal rivalries
overtake them—feelings that are only fueled by an ambitious
and jealous coach.
The characters of Chris and Tory, along with the cast of supporting
players, are portrayed differently than in most sports movies
of this kind. Instead of being self-sacrificing, long-suffering
athletic heroes pursuing a lifelong dream, the athletes and coaches
often come off as petty, jealous, paranoid, and arrogant to the
point of being insufferable. It was an interesting twist on the
sports movie concept. After all, these girls have given away their
youth in the mad pursuit of something that might never come to
fruition. But it would be madness, when faced with the choice,
to let just being human get in the way of perfection.
Along the way, despite the pettiness of competition, these two
women discover a lot about themselves and each other. Hemingway
is literally a revelation as Chris. She blossoms realistically
onscreen from immature girl to young woman and falls headfirst
into every adolescent pitfall you could ever imagine. Her relationship
with Tory is not just any relationship--for Chris it is first
love, her first experience with being so intimate with another
human being. Her fragility at times is heartbreaking and contrasts
effectively with the strength and independence she is able to
show by the film's end.
As an exploration of lesbianism within sports, Personal
Best stands pretty much alone in its category. Despite
the fact that we all know that lesbians compete at the highest
levels in all kinds of sports, you can count on one hand the number
who have come out by choice in real life, rather than being forced
out of the closet (à la Billie Jean King). Films about
lesbian participation in sports are virtually nonexistent, and
for this reason alone Personal Best seems to still demand respect
However, this movie is so much more than a lesbian film. The
thing that always struck me about Personal Best
was that it works so much better as a sports film than as a lesbian
film—which is not necessarily a criticism.
We rarely see lesbians in films that are not explicitly about
lesbianism or gay issues. In contrast, Personal Best is a film
about the sacrifices, rivalries, and nastiness that make up the
world of competitive sports. It features a relationship between
an older athlete and a younger one, and that mentor-protégé
relationship is far more important narratively than the fact that
the two characters are female.
At the time, director/screenwriter Robert Towne was one of the
most celebrated talents in Hollywood. His primary purpose seemed
to be to tell a story about athletes whose personal lives were
decimated by their need to win; the lesbian love story is not
incidental to the plot, but it doesn't take over the entire film.
The fact that a celebrated male director and writer made this
film may have circumvented the homophobia that would have crippled
the film had it been made by an out lesbian director (not that
there were many of those in the early 80s).
Lesbian filmmakers to this day still struggle to create films
with characters who truly just happen to be gay, whose lesbianism
is not the focus and purpose of their existence. It is odd that
a film like this was made so early on and with such success by
someone who isn't a gay filmmaker. In retrospect, it resembles
to some degree the Wachowski Brothers' Bound
(1996), another film where the lesbianism in the plot was by no
means ignored, but the narrative was not a "gay" one.
But despite these laudable aspects, Personal Best
did not entirely avoid invoking the clichés of lesbianism.
In 1982, Mariel Hemingway was at the peak of her career, which
was probably the impetus behind the inclusion of several nude
scenes that showcase her gorgeous body, few of which really work
to progress the narrative. The lesbian love scenes are welcome,
but other scenes including a pleasure cruise through the women's
locker room and shower seem a tad gratuitous, obviously meant
to titillate the male audience.
Despite these shortcomings, Personal Best continues
to be relevant and compelling today, more than twenty years later,
and it does so without standing on a platform of "we're here,
we're queer, get used to it." It stands entirely on its own
merit and should be seen by all women who love film because it's
genuinely a great movie, not because it's pretty good for a lesbian
film. The abundance of sexy, skimpy, 80s running shorts is just
version of this review can also be read on AfterEllen.com.
Perspectives on Personal
Best - an article by Nancy Amazon
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