Friday, August 2, 2013

Short Take: Personal Best

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

With films such as Chinatown, Shampoo, and The Last Detail to his credit, Robert Towne is rightly considered one of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood history. But with Personal Best, his engaging 1982 directorial debut, he handled the project as a director’s film. He doesn’t appear to have started with a fleshed-out screenplay. The film’s story--the relationship of two track-and-field athletes (Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly) over the four years they spend training for the 1980 Summer Olympics--is rather slight. There’s an offhand, casual feel to the dialogue, and the only notable suspense comes from the question of how Towne will handle the anticlimactic ending. (The United States and several other countries boycotted the Moscow-hosted 1980 games, so the athletes trained for a goal they were not allowed to realize.) Towne’s approach to the film was to use the script as a bare-bones foundation; he seems to have discovered the film in the shooting and shaped it in the editing. The picture has a loose, improvisatory feel. Towne is also enamored with the physicality of the athletes. He builds whole scenes out of the drama of their exertions and repose. He also doesn't hide his admiration for their physical beauty. The admiration is platonic, though; there’s nothing prurient about his tone. His tastefulness extends to his handling of the relationship of the Hemingway and Donnelly characters, who are romantically involved for most of the film. The film was unusual for its time; Towne treats lesbianism as no big deal. He isn’t judgmental, and he doesn’t congratulate himself on the enlightenment of his portrayal. Romantic inclinations are depicted as just another aspect of the women’s characters. Overall, the film is a fresh and lively effort. It holds up quite well over three decades after its release. Scott Glenn co-stars as the women's coach. The cinematography is by Michael Chapman.

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