Back in the Day: “Personal Best” Broke Bisexual Ground

Back in the Day is a column that takes a look back at key moments in the history of lesbians and bisexual women in entertainment.

Before the 1980s, bisexual women were rarely depicted in Hollywood
films as three-dimensional people with ordinary human concerns; instead, they
were often defined solely by their sexuality, which was generally portrayed
as highly promiscuous. Though a number of dykesploitation flicks in the 1970s
featured women who were “bisexual,” their love for women was always temporary
and largely done for the titillation of men — to whom they always returned at
the end of the movie.

But a brief fling with a woman before going back to men was
the more positive side of bisexuality in films; the alternative typically involved
unnatural death. The 1968 Canadian film The Fox, which won an Oscar
for Best English-Language Foreign Film, told the story of two women, Ellen and
Jill, living together at an isolated farmhouse.

When Ellen falls in love with a man, Paul, events spiral
into psychological thriller mode and Paul ends up murdering Jill.

Personal Best posterThus, the theatrical debut of Personal Best in 1982 was a watershed moment in the history of representations of bisexual women in film. Directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown), Personal Best was a sports movie about two Olympic track-and-field athletes, Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) and Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly), who fall in love with each other while they are competing to be on the U.S. Olympic team.

Though Chris eventually leaves Tory and falls for a man,
swimmer Denny Stites (Kenny Moore), Chris and Tory’s relationship is never rejected
as unnatural and in fact comes second to the more pressing concerns of Olympic
competition. Personal Best was one of the first films to depict bisexuality
as relatively normal, and given the inclusion of an unusually positive love
scene — for 1982 — between the two women, the film has become one of the most
memorable lesbian films of all time.

Twenty years after the film’s debut, actress
Mariel Hemingway told The Advocate that her role in Personal Best
had been a particularly significant one for her. “

There was so much about the movie that colored my life,”
she said. “But what I've loved about it is that over the many years that
have gone by since then, there’s not a few months that go by that someone doesn’t
say to me, ‘I just have to tell you that that movie helped me. It made me feel
OK that I was a girl and that I was gay.’”

But although the film was highly popular among lesbian viewers
because it was one of the very few positive portrayals of lesbian sexuality
available, reactions from critics were more mixed, with some reviewers noting
director Robert Towne’s lingering shots of nude bodies.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, "Mr.
Towne treats the story of the lesbian love affair with something that passes
so far beyond understanding that it begins to look like undisguised voyeurism.
Personal Best is nonjudgmental in the way that a porn film is nonjudgmental
about the activities of its performers.”

But Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was more positive and declared, “The characters in Personal Best seem to be free to have real feelings. It is filled with the uncertainties, risks, cares, and rewards of real life, and it considers its characters’ hearts and minds, and sees their sexuality as an expression of their true feelings for each other.”

The year 1982, which was known at
the box office for successes such as E.T., Rocky III, and An Officer
and a Gentleman,
was a particularly notable year for films with queer themes.

Men also had their bisexual big
screen splash in the film Making Love, starring Kate Jackson (television’s
Charlie’s Angels) and Harry Hamlin (L.A. Law) as
the gay man who falls in love with Jackson’s husband.

In addition, two critically acclaimed films about cross-dressing were released that year: In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman disguised himself as a woman to get an acting job (and was nominated for an Oscar for his role); and in Victor/Victoria Julie Andrews played a male impersonator (and was also nominated for an Oscar).

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