October 7, 2012

Queer Review: Personal Best (1982)

Personal Best
Director: Robert Towne
Writer: Robert Towne
Cast: Mariel Hemingway, Scott Glenn, Patrice Donnelly, Kenny Moore

A mediocre effort, Personal Best does little to distinguish itself from many other sports film outside of the fact that happens to focus on queer female athletes and a tendency to shun most of the cliches that accompany the sports film genre.

When Chris (Mariel Hemingway) comes in last at a track event, she attracts the attention of Tory (Patrice Donnelly) an older lesbian. The two eventually becomes lovers and after Tory persuades Coach Terry (Scott Glenn) to allow Chris on the team, Chris manages to convince Terry of her talent. However, while the track team is preparing to qualify for the Olympic games, Terry ends up favoring Chris over Terry and attempts to pit the two females against each other.

The Queering
There are many things I would like to applaud about Personal Best. For one, it deals openly and honestly with a lesbian relationship, even though it came out in the early 80's. Another is that the training/sports sequences are effectively presented and usually manage to generate some suspense. Furthermore, the focus on female athletes is also a welcome change for a genre that almost exclusively focuses on men.

I also felt there was a rather deliberate effort on the part of the filmmakers to avoid many of the more annoying cliches associated with sports films. Terry never gives a grand speech about how winning is everything and TEH GLORY FOREVERZ! The plot does not conclude with the "big game" - this is actually all about qualifying for an Olympics, that thanks to the possibility of a U.S. boycott, the athletes might not even be able to attend.

However, after the writers removed all of the melodrama, speeches, and underdogs who come from behind that usually accompany sports flicks, what you have left is, well, something too bland to even be called "vanilla". Personal Best is more appropriately likened to watered down, low fat vanilla.

After what I considered a promising start, Personal Best spends most of the middle section meandering through tepid melodrama, before redeeming itself with an ending that is at least more involving than most of the material proceeding it.

However, I think it is worth comparing Personal Best to it's male equivalents, either in terms of the sports genre or it's presentation of same sex love.

As far as sports dramas go, when most sports films with male characters would be going for 11, Personal Best goes for 1. There are times when I had to remind myself that these characters were Olympic class athletes, as they almost never seem all that interested in winning, or glory, or even in doing particularly well on a given day. Maybe the lack of motivational speeches is to blame, but neither the actors or the script really do much to sell the idea that these are professional athletes locked in non-contact combat.

I've been around enough athletes to know the kinds of pressures many of them face. There are rigid diets that must be adhered to. Strict training schedules that cannot be abandoned, even when one is not on the track. One does not simply lift a few weights, perform a couple of stretches, and then wash down an ice cream Sunday with a bit of Gatorade before showing up for practice or a big game. Compare the level of pressure these characters appear to be up against and compare that to what was on display in Black Swan which was about ballet, not training for the Olympics.

There are two possible explanations for this and the truth probably lies somewhere in between them. One is that the filmmakers believe female athletes are not as competitive as male athletes. This is not true as far as I know.

The second explanation is that the filmmakers decided that the content (LESBIAN ATHLETES WOO!) was juicy enough, and that trying to spice things up further would be like adding chili powder to jalapeno peppers. The blandness of the final product shows just how wrong that thinking was. Personal Best does however manage to avoid sinking to the level of Making Love, a film that was also released in 1982 and another example of where the filmmakers appear to come down with a case of, "well we got queer content, no need to do anything else to make this interesting, like actually bother writing a decent script".

Now as far as queer content itself goes, there is another element that differentiates Personal Best from it's male equivalents. Namely that there are way more shots of the nude female form then would ever be of male characters in a mainstream film - at least for the foreseeable future. Not that this is interesting in of itself, it just goes to further highlight the double standards that continue to exist in modern cinema.

While managing to avoid being a personal worst for anybody involved, Personal Best is anything but. Not to be avoided, but only worth seeking out for those with a strong interest in seeing lesbian characters on film, sports flicks about female athletes, or someone studying the history of queer cinema.

The Rating
**1/2 out of ****

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