Thursday, January 17, 2008

Stars of Track and Field Are Beautiful People

Personal Best (1982, Robert Towne)

Aside from a complimentary DVD Beaver review, Warner Home Video's fine DVD release of Robert Towne's Personal Best has flown completely under the radar. Issued as part of the company's Directors' Showcase: Take Three, the film has long been one of my most requested DVD titles.  Contrary to early press releases, the DVD carries not only an anamorphic widescreen transfer and theatrical trailer, but also an audio commentary with producer/writer/director Towne and actors Scott Glenn and Kenny Moore.  Female leads Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly are sorely missed, but the track is not without merit. We learn early on that the film was over two years in production, largely due, the director says, to an actors strike in 1980. 

If ever a film benefited from such a prolonged production it is Personal Best.  The extra time allowed Hemingway to hone her athletic skills to credible levels and gave Glenn the opportunity to soak up maximum knowledge from the top coaches and athletes who served as consultants on the film.  [Amazingly, Glenn also found time to go to Japan and shoot John Frankenheimer's criminally underrated The Challenge during the production hiatus!]  It is due, in large part, to this unusual production schedule, that Personal Best achieves an uncommon verisimilitude. The relationships between Glenn, his assistant coach (the dependable Jim Moody of Bad Boys [1983] and Fame), and his athletes, especially Donnelly, are utterly convincing and seem to have been in place for years when we first encounter them on screen.

Unsurprisingly, the commentary participants do not acknowledge the unflattering allegations made by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, of which I am not an admirer.  According to Biskind, a drug-addled Towne presided over an out-of-control production, feuded badly with executive producer David Geffen, and conducted affairs with both of his leading actresses.  If there is any truth to these stories, it is nullified by the fact that Personal Best is one of the most accomplished directorial debuts of the last twenty-five years and remains one of the best cinematic treatments of athletes in training, in competition, and in their personal lives. 

At its core is the complex relationship between tough coach Terry Tingloff (Glenn), veteran pent-athlete Tory Skinner (Donnelly), and promising, but untested Chris Cahill (Hemingway).   Tory mentors the younger Chris as they train for the 1980 Summer Olympics and the two soon fall in love much to the chagrin of Tingloff who is loath to have personal relationships jeopardize the on-field achievements of his athletes.  The relationship between Chris and Tory is conceived and performed with a rare sensitivity.  The moments leading up to and including their first kiss and lovemaking are filled with just the right mix of humor, spontaneity, and pathos. This central relationship is made all the more impressive by the fact that Hemingway, a non-athlete, had to undergo rigorous training to look convincing alongside real Olympic athletes.  At the same time, the former Olympian, Donnelly, with no prior acting experience, delivers a superb performance opposite seasoned performers Hemingway and Glenn.  

Hemingway, in just her third feature film, following Lamont Johnson's Lipstick and Woody Allen's Manhattan is a revelation here, going from an insecure, green 18-year old to a much wiser, strong-willed 22-year old track veteran.  Unfortunately, in spite of her success in Personal Best and in Bob Fosse's Star 80 the following year, Hemingway would have very few subsequent worthwhile big-screen opportunities.  It is because of the long arc of her character that Towne justifies Chris' eventual relationship with a man (former Olympian and Sports Illustrated scribe Kenny Moore). In his commentary, Towne maintains that Chris is young and unformed enough to be able to enter into sexual relationships with women and men, experimenting, if you will, without becoming locked into traditional roles (i.e. lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual).  A major point of criticism for feminist and lesbian critics, Chris' relationship with Denny Stites (Moore) is, I concur, the one aspect of the film that is not entirely convincing or successful.  Towne's comments on the DVD do little to convince otherwise.  

The heterosexual relationship does not have the same organic quality that punctuates the relationship between Chris and Tory and also that of Tingloff and his star athletes.  In contrast to those relationships, Chris and Denny's feels forced.  Still, one of the film's most daring and memorable scenes occurs between Chris and Denny, in which Chris follows the nude Denny into the bathroom and holds his penis in order to see what it's like to "pee standing up."  This scene is something of an antidote to the plentiful female nudity that populates the earlier parts of the film.  For further feminist criticism it is instructive to look at Linda Williams' contemporary review of the film in Jump Cut.  This was followed by a 1984 study of the feminist/lesbian audience of the film by Chris Straayer.
Glenn, as Tingloff, is magnificent and it is a shame that he has not had more film roles of this caliber. Relegated mostly to character parts, albeit many good ones, in the years since Personal Best,  Glenn never fails to convince that he is a top-ranked women's track coach. Tingloff is alternately caring, manipulative, and despicable, always full of amusingly salty wit. His inimitable ticks and vocal delivery are utilized perfectly and are the mark of an actor at the top of his game. Glenn has one of the best scenes of the film, in which he complains to Chris that winning Coach of the Year as a women's coach ultimately means very little in his profession.  He could have coached college football, Tingloff tells her, and then launches into a brilliantly profane tirade that mixes the stars of the Pittsburgh Steelers and "female issues"--"Do you actually think that Chuck Noll has to worry that Franco Harris is gonna cry because Terry Bradshaw won't talk to him?!  Jack Lambert can't play cause Mel Blount hurt his feelings. Lynn Swann's pregnant.  Rocky Bleier forgot his Tampax."  
Finally, it must be mentioned that Towne surrounds himself with premium talent--both cinematic and athletic--cinematographers Michael Chapman and Caleb Deschanel, composer Jack Nitzsche (with associate Jill Fraser), supervising film editor Bud Smith (flanked by a team of accomplished editors), and numerous top U.S. track and field athletes and coaches of the 1970s and early 80s.  The design and photography of the film is stunning.  Towne and his collaborators came under fire from some critics (mainly men) for portraying the athletes in a pornographic manner, but in my view the film portrays the bodies and movements of the women athletes with an appropriate sense of awe, admiration, and beauty.  The races and events are expertly staged and edited, particularly the climactic 1980 trials sequence filmed during the actual 1980 trials using real athletes and a mixture of staged and authentic event footage.
Credit must also be given to the sound design and score, which is effectively minimalist and unconventional. The largely electronic score can be found, in part, on Nitzsche's earlier St. Giles Cripplegate and Jack Nitzsche albums.  These are collected on the excellent Rhino Handmade Three Piece Suite collection.  In addition, the soundtrack includes several well-culled songs of the period which nicely complement the mood and setting of the film. Viewers will be hard-pressed to get Billy Joel's "Rosalinda's Eyes" (also used to memorable effect in an episode of Freaks and Geeks in a moment that seems inspired by Personal Best), Fleetwood Mac's "You Make Loving Fun," and the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes" out of their heads after the film is over. Towne immersed himself so deeply in the culture of Olympic athletes of the era, in an effort to transport it accurately to the screen, that I have to believe his attention to detail extended even to the songs they listened to.
Towne's film certainly merits another look, which this, frankly, belated DVD release will hopefully inspire.


Steve Langton said...

Excellent review. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on ths film. The DVD is simply a must-buy.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for the kind words, Steve. I'll have another review up soon.