Some movies try quite hard to approach subjects that are overlooked or misunderstood by general audiences. When this works correctly, it is something amazing and often creates a cultural phenomenon relating to the subject of focus. Robert Towne's study of female athletes in Personal Best is anything but this, because what could have been an engaging study of companionship and competition between women instead becomes an exploitative film that relies on crotch shots and excessive nudity to draw audiences in. I will say that the film is quite well made and perhaps one of the best edited sports movies I have ever seen, however, the cinematic nature of the film does little to save the convoluted and misogynistic storyline from succeeding. What Personal Best should have been was a revolutionary piece of athletic cinema, however, it borders on soft core pornography. To further this, a film that deals heavily with the existence of homosexual relationships, fails to maintain their validity and results in a film that demands the necessity for heterosexual normalcy. In short, Personal Best is a feminist's nightmare and has since become a stellar example of how not to make a socially progressive film.
Personal Best follows the experiences of two women athletes who become entwined in a romantic relationship while competing and training together for a spot on the American Olympic team at the 1980 Olympic games. The women involved are the aging track star Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly) who is an open lesbian that realizes her time as a world class athlete are fading. The other woman is the much younger and inexperienced Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) who is as sexually inconsistent as she is on the track. Chris's lack of productive results leads her to be taken under the wing by Tory who also possesses sexual feelings for Chris. These feelings are enacted upon and the two become a couple and all seems all right until it becomes apparent that their off field relationship results in negative affects on their on field performance. In order to correct this male coach Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn) enters in to the picture to correct Chris and stop Tory from destroy both her and Chris's career. Realizing that Chris is quite dependent on Tory, Terry interferes and begins flirting with Chris. After successfully wooing Chris with affection and ice cream, Tory begins a fit of jealousy, which includes causing Chris to blow her knee while practicing the high jump. However, almost inexplicably, the two mend their relationship as friends and Chris begins a new relationship with a water polo player named Denny (Kenny Moore). In the trials for the Olympic Games, Chris and Tory work together to assure that both of them obtain spots on the Olympic team and the film closes with them celebrating their victory and Tory giving her blessing to Chris's new relationship, claiming that Denny is cute for a guy. Ironically, in passing statement by a reporter, it is realized that the women's efforts are futile for the United States plans to boycott the Moscow Olympics. This statement that seems arbitrary actually implies that the women's efforts are futile and irrelevant.
If it is not apparent that the film is problematic from the plot description, I will happily elaborate on its issues. The first is the obviously exploitative nature of the film as it relates to lesbianism. The film has multiple scenes that involve lengthy panning shots of Tory and Chris in bed or the women athletes in the spa, all of which appear to lack necessary placement in the film. Furthermore, almost every segment of track and field filming involves crotch shots of the women, again for no obvious artistic reason. Furthermore, the film implies that women athletes are incapable of being productive without the direct guidance of men. In a lengthy diatribe, Terry explains that male athletes are inherently easier to coach because they lack feminine needs and emotional instability. If these factors were not enough to make the film incredibly problematic, the fact that each woman in the film ultimately falls back on a man to assure her safety is the nail in the coffin. Chris relies on the assurance of Denny both physically and emotionally for her success, while Tory ultimately confides in Terry for support, which is further problematized by the implication that the two have been intimate in the past. It is a film full of plot gaps, exploitative dialogue and voyeuristic cinematography that has no purpose, besides what appears to be reaffirming the patriarchal ideals that would come to dominate the 1980's. If this film is the supposed cult classic it appears to be, I would assume it is solely to its absurdity.
I have ragged on this movie quite a bit, with that being said, I would suggest watching it if you are at all concerned with gender studies. It is an absolutely necessary piece of cinema to know about when discussing feminism and lesbian imagery in film. As for owning a copy, well that is another story.