LGBT Movies: Personal Best (1982)

In 1982, there was a brief cycle of homosexual-relationship films, none of which were successful enough to form the basis of a trend. Producer/director/writer Robert Towne’s Personal Best is one of the finest. ~ Rotten Tomatoes.

A bisexual athlete trains for the Olympics and falls in love. Personal Best treats romance honestly but focuses on the mundane realities of professional sports. Negative reviews call the constant training boring and the locker room nudity exploitative. I liked the way the performers grew in confidence as the film progressed. I also appreciate that the lead’s relationships with her female and male love interests were treated with equal respect.

Here’s a spoiler filled recap.

Act One: They Meet

2 Arm Wrestle
Tory and Chris arm wrestle. Tory’s actress was a real life Olympic hurdler.

Scene One: 1976, The Olympic Trials. A race track in Oregon
(Close up on dripping sweat.)
TORY (a pro athlete): I won second place in the long jump!
CHRIS’s DAD: You were great. Unlike my loser daughter!
CHRIS (a new athlete): You’re the worst dad. (Faints.)

Scene Two: Chris’s Dorm Room
CHRIS: Losing sucks. (Sobs.)
TORY: I know. Try some pot.
CHRIS: (Smokes. Farts. Laughs hysterically.)
TORY: You’ll be great at Moscow in 1980. You just need some killer instinct.
CHRIS: I’m as competitive as you are. Let’s arm wrestle! (They do. A draw.)
TORY: Can we skip the “will they or won’t they” part? (Tory kisses Chris.)
CHRIS: Sounds good to me. (They make love.)

Act Two: They Train

3 Training
Mariel Hemingway trained hard for the role of Chris.

Scene Three: A race track in San Louis
COACH TINGLOFF (Tory’s foul-mouthed ex-boyfriend): Why should I coach your [censored] girlfriend? She’s got no guts.
TORY: You’re wrong. And you owe me.
(CHRIS trips, but catches up to the other runners.)
COACH TINGLOFF: That’s a start you [censored]. Roll the training montage!
TORY: Montages are for losers. We’re going to spend half the film training!
CHRIS: Won’t that be boring?
TORY: Yes.

Scene Four: 1978 World Student Games in Colombia.
HOST: No men in the dorms. And don’t eat anything.
CHRIS: (Eats something. Gets food poisoning. Cries.)
COACH TINGLOFF: Shut up and run [censored]. I’m entering you in the pentathlon.
CHRIS: F*** you. That’s Tory’s sport!
TORY: I don’t mind… OR DO I? Let’s jog up hill in slow motion. It’s a metaphor.

Scene Five: Love Triangles
COACH TINGLOFF: You should break up. She’ll sabotage you.
CHRIS: Nope.
TORY: We should break up. We’re competing.
CHRIS: Nope.
TORY: You need to lower your center of gravity.
CHRIS: (Chris tries it. She injures her knee.) We need to break up.
COACH TINGLOFF: I should have been a man’s coach. I’m sick of your weak woman emotions you [censored]!
CHRIS: F*** you.
(Chris punches the Coach in the throat. Then sleeps with him.)
CHRIS: (To the audience.) What? It’s bisexual representation!

 Act Three: They Run

4 Hurtles
The US boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Moscow would boycott the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Scene Six: Gym
WATER POLO GUY: We should date! I support bisexual rights. And I don’t wear many clothes.
CHRIS: I like that you’re submissive. Pee for me.
WATER POLO GUY: Um… okay. (That happens.)

Scene Seven: The Pan American Games

Spoilers

CHRIS’s DAD: I’m finally proud of you.
CHRIS: Nobody cares dad.
COACH TINGLOFF: You’re competing against Tory. She’s your enemy.
WATER POLO GUY: Forget that. You’re competing against your personal best score.
TORY: I hurt my knee. I have to quit the race!
CHRIS: Shut up and run. (They do.)
ANNOUNCER:  It’s Tory first, some rando second, Chris third!
CHRIS: We made the Olympic team!
ANNOUNCER: Unfortunately, the US is boycotting the Moscow Olympics. This was your last race.
CHRIS: Meet my new boyfriend!
TORY: “He’s kind of cute… for a guy.”

THE END

CHRIS: Really? That’s the line we’re ending on? That’s depressing.
TORY: Have you seen the lesbian films made before 1982? This is a happy ending!

[collapse]

Bisexual Rights

5 Finale
Bit player Jodi Anderson passed the real life 1980 Olympic trials.

What distinguishes “Personal Best” is that it creates specific characters–flesh-and-blood people with interesting personalities, people I cared about. ~ Roger Ebert.

If this film were made in 2012 Tory and Chris might have reunited. If this film were made in 1962 Chris would have married the Coach and Tory would have died. But it was made in 1982 so we get a compromise. Enter Denny, the water polo guy. He seems constructed by a focus group to upset as few people as possible. He lets Chris be herself, offers emotional support and accepts her past relationship with Tory. The film doesn’t position either relationship as “better” and disbands the Coach’s notion that Tory held Chris back. Still, I respect anyone who felt disappointed by the ending.

Have you seen the film? What were your thoughts? How does it play today vs. 1982? For more reviews of LGBT media click here.

Up next: Another lesbian classic. 1985’s Desert Hearts.