Forty Years After Its Release, “Personal Best” Has a Fascinating and Unsettling Legacy (2024)

For better and worse, there are no other sports movies like Personal Best. Released 40 years ago last month, the 1982 Oregon-set track drama is both progressive and regressive, exhilarating and aimless—and obsesses over leg muscles with both worship and perversion.

Featuring key scenes at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, Personal Best follows teenage hurdler Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway), who is caught between the influence of her pentathlete lover Tory (Patrice Donnelly) and her domineering coach (Scott Glenn).

Despite having legendary Hollywood scribe Robert Towne (Chinatown, The Last Detail) at the helm and raves from Siskel and Ebert, the film face-planted upon its release in 1982. It’s not hard to retrace why. The film is an overly long remnant of meandering, character-driven New Hollywood dotage, born into a steroidal sports movie era epitomized by Rocky III that same spring.

With a production addled by cocaine, lawsuits and overspending, Personal Best is a frenzy of contradictions. Towne was an unparalleled writer who struggled mightily to direct. The film treats its central queer relationship between Chris and Tory with affectionate calm but soon abandons it. Its track scenes are breathtaking (emphasis on the *breath* that resonates unforgettably in the sound design) but with meager stakes. To top it off, the movie’s best performance comes from the charmingly natural Donnelly, a world-class pentathlete who’d never acted.

Then there’s the messy business of Personal Best’s favorite character—legs. When famed Oregon track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman initially rebuked the production and the university deemed the script “objectionable” (as reported in a 1982 Sports Illustrated article by marathoner-turned-Personal Best actor Kenny Moore), they couldn’t have had any idea its most provocative element would be the camerawork.

On the one hand, cinematographers Michael Chapman (fresh off Raging Bull), Caleb Deschanel and Rey Villalobos capture athletic motion as nothing short of empyrean. Hurdlers suspend midair like condors. Quadriceps gleam and ripple in close-ups. A crucial shot-putting sequence is directed flip-book style, cutting across six throwers at different stages of tension and release, like Da Vinci’s anatomy sketches come alive.

Simultaneously, the movie’s objectification of these same women is absurd, akin to the skeeziest possible version of ESPN The Magazine’s The Body Issue. The worst offender is a high-jump montage viewed from between the jumpers’ legs directly at the crotch.

Furthermore, nude steam room scenes meant to convey bodily comfort and camaraderie appear imagined by a teenage peeper with his eye to a keyhole. Perhaps not coincidentally, Peter Biskind reports in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Towne and the actresses spent ample time using cocaine in steam rooms during the production (which the director denies).

What Towne does capture credibly is the endless monotony, anxiety and conflict of training. Portrayed here, amateur athletics is a breeding ground for abuse of the body and soul. Coach Tingloff (Glenn) emotionally and sexually manipulates Chris and Tory for the alleged purpose of on-track dominance—a theme still resonating today.

Last year supplied two acclaimed indie films on the subject, The Novice and Slalom. And four decades later, one doesn’t even have to leave Oregon to find a track coach, Alberto Salazar, banned for physically and sexually abusing female athletes. Of course, the movie would deserve more credit for this foresight if it weren’t shot through the gaze of an obsessive, covetous coach. With yet another paradox in tow, Personal Best has aged into an Icarian artifact—betrayed by the height of its appreciation for bodies.

It’s worth nothing Towne’s directing style gradually changed. By the time he returned to Oregon to direct the Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits 15 years later, the druggy, voyeuristic fixations of Personal Best were sanded off.

Perhaps the film’s legacy lies in one anticlimactic line, just after its brilliant 800-meter finale. As Chris and Tory ascend the podium at the 1980 Olympic trials, commentator Charlie Jones offers an ironic insight. With the United States boycotting the Moscow Olympics, these victorious pentathletes are “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” Any glory for Chris and Tory was merely in the athlete’s war against herself and the toxic rigors of her sport.

Forty years later, Personal Best should know that feeling. It’s the best-looking, occasionally riveting sports movie you’ll ever see trapped in a dead heat with its own ugly faults.

SEE IT: Personal Best streams on Amazon, Apple TV+, Google Play, and Vudu. It is also available to rent at Movie Madness.

Forty Years After Its Release, “Personal Best” Has a Fascinating and Unsettling Legacy (2024)
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