Released in 1982, today’s movie Personal Best chronicles the journey of a confused young track star, from failure at the 1976 Olympic trials, through to the 1980 qualifiers, ultimately rendered moot by an Olympic boycott. But that’s not really what it’s about. The film focuses on Mariel Hemingway as Chris Cahill, and her relationship with mentor/rival/friend/lover Tory Skinner played by Patrice Donnelly, as well as punchably-creepy head track coach/dickwad Tery Tingloff (Scott Glenn) who tries to shoehorn his way in there as well.
One problem about watching groundbreaking movies years after they’ve been made, is that the things that made them innovative and groundbreaking have since been emulated by others. It’s impossible to go back and un-see the subsequent works, or forget the culture of today, and so it’s hard to rate the innovator the same way one might have originally. In the case of Personal Best, the film was praised for it’s frank depiction of the complex and at times sexual relationship between the two female athletes. In 1982, this was eye-opening, in 2012, the tale of a college girl hooking up with her lesbian roommate a few times before settling down with some dude she meets senior year is pretty much a full-on cliche. Also, while Coach Terry may have been seen as a typical 70’s man about town, thirty years later he just seems like a harassment lawsuit waiting to happen, seemingly more concerned with sewing dissent between Chris and Tory, before trying to swoop on in himself at the first opportunity.
The movie occasionally decides to spend a great deal of time focusing on the physical exertion of these top level athletes, as such we get a lot of extended sequences of dripping sweat and heavy breathing, this would probably be more effective if it were used throughout the film but it’s used inconsistently, and primarily in the first half. More disturbing is the way that the plot seems to advance in leaps and starts. With the film clocking in at almost exactly two hours, I can’t help but think that there was quite a bit of plot that got left on the cutting room floor. Which is a shame, because there is a lot of potential here, but what made it to the screen doesn’t quite deliver, not today. I’d have to say that this one wasn’t worth watching.