Hurdler Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) and Pentathlete Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly) meet at the Olympic trials. They become lovers but then must compete against each other for a place in the United States team.
When Leni Riefenstahl celebrated the power and beauty of the human body in Olympiad, she was denounced as a fascist. Similarly, Robert Towne was accused of voyeurism for his depiction of Hemingway and Donnelly in this lesbian love story, played against the backdrop of the Moscow Olympic Games, that marked his directorial debut.
Towne (who won a screenplay Oscar for Chinatown) demonstrates a sure visual sense, as he not only chronicles the athletes’ romance but also their physical progress under martinet coach Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn).
The camerawork is occasionally fussy and over-reliant on sporting clichés, but this is still subtle sensual stuff.
Mariel Hemingway spent a full year in training before filming even began. She took twice-daily workouts with the Los Angeles Naturite track team, learning all the events in the pentathlon.
Except for one brief sequence, there were no body doubles used in Personal Best, no long-shot cutaways to some lookalike running or jumping or putting the shot. Mariel had to do it all – and the other actors were all actual athletes.
Nadia “Pooch” Anderson