Years ago one ofmy favorite actors was John Cassavetes, but then he started writing anddirecting his own films, casting his wife and friends, too, and the quality ofhis performances and movies declined in direct proportion to his involvement. Icame to call this the Cassavetes Syndrome. Cassavetes is hardly the only one inHollywood to be afflicted with this dread disease. Warren Beatty, for example,tacks an extra half hour onto Reds for every additional credit he takes on thatfilm.
The most recentvictim to be struck down in his prime is Robert Towne, who has long beenrecognized as one of the finest screenwriters in the world. Towne wrote TheLast Detail, an exquisitely fashioned piece of work; he won an Academy Awardfor Chinatown, a script of such classic quality that it is often singled outfor study in college courses.
Now Towne haswritten Personal Best, a movie about female athletes. Alas, he has alsodirected and produced Personal Best; Towne has such an extreme case ofCassavetes Syndrome that he could be the poster child for this malady. It wouldbe a cheap shot to call his film Personal Worst, though it would also be anunderstatement. It is almost inconceivable how any man could produce suchexcellent work and then turn out something so tedious and garbled.
The film is abouttwo pentathletes, who are both competitors and lesbian lovers. The difficultyof competing against someone you love is an intriguing problem, most recentlyexamined—heterosexually—in The Competition, and Personal Best is very topicalbecause lesbianism in women's athletics has recently been in the news. But theserious nature of these themes makes the film's failure all the greater, allthe more obvious.
February 8, 1982
The subject ofhomosexuality is never really addressed in Personal Best, either by the twowomen involved or by the other characters. The whole issue was further confusedfor me when the younger woman (Mariel Hemingway) then takes a male lover (KennyMoore), a water polo player, with no more inner conflict or compunction thanwhen she took her female lover (Patrice Donnelly). Are we to think that thebusiness of sexual preference is no more than a question of shotput or hurdles?Later the water poloist does ask the young woman to explain her feelings, butshe just says no. she'd rather not, and that's that. So much for drama. Insporting parlance, the film not only loses, it also chokes.
The principalcharacters are not only almost all unappealing and unsympathetic, but they alsolack any real definition. The older woman, played by Donnelly, a formerworld-class hurdler, is a dark and brooding presence who trails off into bitchywhining. Hemingway sets a pr for vacuity, displaying more prowess at athleticsthan acting. Scott Glenn, the coach, in his first role since his magnificentlyevil ex-con in Urban Cowboy, is at sixes and sevens, getting the mostconflicting signals of all from the script and the director. Glenn has onemarvelous speech about coaching women—"I could have been a man's coach. Doyou really think that Chuck Noll has to worry that Terry Bradshaw is going tocry if Franco Harris won't talk to him?"—but ultimately we are left withthe impression that he chooses to be a women's coach because that way he cansleep with his athletes.
Moore is anOlympic marathoner (1968 and '72), now a writer for SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDand—scout's honor—the film's only saving grace. Like the other rookie thespian,Donnelly, Moore proves to be a very credible actor, capable of sweet subtlety.More to the point, he's the only principal who is both coherent and appealing.He must survive, however, a coed toilet scene that's as unnecessary, as baseand as embarrassing a moment as ever tarnished the silver screen.
At the otherextreme, there's one scene of the two women running together, struggling up asand dune, that tells more of devotion and competition than the whole rest ofthe film; not coincidentally, the scene is without dialogue. Unfortunately, thecinematography of the track sequences isn't up to that standard. In fact, Ithought the rather graphic lesbian love scenes were photographed with morevisual sensitivity than the athletic ones. There's also plenty of frontalnudity and a steady diet of four-letter words, much of which could have beenavoided without any loss of verisimilitude. Furthermore, away from thehigh-jump pit, the steam room and the bedroom, the athletes seem to spend mostof their time smoking dope and drinking beer. There is a tendency in movieslike Personal Best to overemphasize the seamy side of competition so thatpromoters can advertise that it isn't "just" a sports movie. Better,apparently, that it's "just" rubbish?