Although Personal Best (1982) is arguably the second or third most well-known and influential lesbian film made to date (behind Go Fish and Desert Hearts), it has been joked about for so long that it has surpassed cult status, and become almost a cliche in the lesbian community. To wit: it was referenced by Ellen DeGeneres in the famed “Puppy Episode” of Ellen.
It was particularly important for lesbians searching for identity in the early 80s who had little else to watch except slasher films and lesbian vampire flicks. But now, over 20 years later, the clothes are dated, the film looks dated, and everything has just gone out of style–except good storytelling, which this film has in spades.
That’s why I think—to paraphrase Kia from Go Fish—everyone should get past their shallow fashion requirements and start getting into Personal Best.
In Personal Best, Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is a talented athlete with the ability to go all the way to the Olympics. She has untapped potential, a fact that is recognized by Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly), an older pentathlete who takes Chris under her wing and helps her to explore that potential on the track. Pretty soon the women start exploring the potential of other things too. Their emotional and physical relationship is intense, steamy, and most importantly, very mutual.
After a good beginning and many beautiful and touching scenes, things in their relationship take a turn for the worse when Chris gets a maniacal new coach, Terry (Scott Glenn). Not only does Terry succeed in supplanting Tory as Chris’s mentor, but he also drives a competitive wedge between the two women as they compete for spots on the 1980 U.S. Olympics team.
When one of the two women suffers a serious injury the suffocating competition between them comes to a head and their relationship disintegrates. The relationship doesn’t die because they’re women. It doesn’t die because of self-loathing or homophobia or any other reason we might suspect. It dies because the women stop looking at each other as friends and lovers and let personal rivalries overtake them—feelings that are only fueled by an ambitious and jealous coach.
The characters of Chris and Tory, along with the cast of supporting players, are portrayed differently than in most sports movies of this kind. Instead of being self-sacrificing, long-suffering athletic heroes pursuing a lifelong dream, the athletes and coaches often come off as petty, jealous, paranoid, and arrogant to the point of being insufferable. It was an interesting twist on the sports movie concept. After all, these girls have given away their youth in the mad pursuit of something that might never come to fruition. But it would be madness, when faced with the choice, to let just being human get in the way of perfection.
Along the way, despite the pettiness of competition, these two women discover a lot about themselves and each other. Hemingway is literally a revelation as Chris. She blossoms realistically onscreen from immature girl to young woman and falls headfirst into every adolescent pitfall you could ever imagine. Her relationship with Tory is not just any relationship–for Chris it is first love, her first experience with being so intimate with another human being. Her fragility at times is heartbreaking and contrasts effectively with the strength and independence she is able to show by the film’s end.
As an exploration of lesbianism within sports, Personal Best stands pretty much alone in its category. Despite the fact that we all know that lesbians compete at the highest levels in all kinds of sports, you can count on one hand the number who have come out by choice in real life, rather than being forced out of the closet (à la Billie Jean King). Films about lesbian participation in sports are virtually nonexistent, and for this reason alone Personal Best seems to still demand respect and attention.
However, this movie is so much more than a lesbian film. The thing that always struck me about Personal Best was that it works so much better as a sports film than as a lesbian film—which is not necessarily a criticism.
We rarely see lesbians in films that are not explicitly about lesbianism or gay issues. In contrast, Personal Best is a film about the sacrifices, rivalries, and nastiness that make up the world of competitive sports. It features a relationship between an older athlete and a younger one, and that mentor-protégé relationship is far more important narratively than the fact that the two characters are female.
At the time, director/screenwriter Robert Towne was one of the most celebrated talents in Hollywood. His primary purpose seemed to be to tell a story about athletes whose personal lives were decimated by their need to win; the lesbian love story is not incidental to the plot, but it doesn’t take over the entire film. The fact that a celebrated male director and writer made this film may have circumvented the homophobia that would have crippled the film had it been made by an out lesbian director (not that there were many of those in the early 80s).
Lesbian filmmakers to this day still struggle to create films with characters who truly just happen to be gay, whose lesbianism is not the focus and purpose of their existence. It is odd that a film like this was made so early on and with such success by someone who isn’t a gay filmmaker. In retrospect, it resembles to some degree the Wachowski Brothers’ Bound (1996), another film where the lesbianism in the plot was by no means ignored, but the narrative was not a “gay” one.
But despite these laudable aspects, Personal Best did not entirely avoid invoking the clichés of lesbianism. In 1982, Mariel Hemingway was at the peak of her career, which was probably the impetus behind the inclusion of several nude scenes that showcase her gorgeous body, few of which really work to progress the narrative. The lesbian love scenes are welcome, but other scenes including a pleasure cruise through the women’s locker room and shower seem a tad gratuitous, obviously meant to titillate the male audience.
Despite these shortcomings, Personal Best continues to be relevant and compelling today, more than twenty years later, and it does so without standing on a platform of “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” It stands entirely on its own merit and should be seen by all women who love film because it’s genuinely a great movie, not because it’s pretty good for a lesbian film. The abundance of sexy, skimpy, 80s running shorts is just a bonus.