"Be serious," I said.
That was six months ago. Since then Towne has been driving himself and two editors to carve a two-hour dramatic experience out of the small warehouse of film he exposed. "A movie as it develops has a life of its own," he said last week. "You have to let it complete itself."
It took its own sweet time. In September I happened to be in Los Angeles and paid a visit. Towne came out of his shower wrapped like a mummy in pink towels. "Remember those nights of misery in San Luis Obispo?" he said. "That scene is history."
"It's gone. Out of the movie. Didn't need it. The complexity of Denny's character is already established. It's cheap to have him be a dramatic convenience, stumbling into the night only to return at the crucial moment of the Trials."
I had to agree, at least objectively. But I was queasy for a moment at all the work and turmoil of those nights gone for nothing. "No wonder actors don't edit," I said.
I've seen bits and pieces of the movie. The more that is cut from my scenes the better I seem to do, although they are still hard to watch. The climactic 800 meters is compelling, firing my runner's instincts, drawing me into battle each time I've seen it.
Yet who can say how audiences will react to the movie? Sheer athletic authenticity, which is all this viewer can guarantee, by itself cannot bind story and performance into a satisfying whole. Perhaps Personal Best will be offensive to some precisely because of its unsparing authenticity, if only regarding athletes' sexuality. During the Trials, when word—usually exaggerated—of the leading characters' affair got around, there were some coaches and athletes who worried that the film would hurt or set back women's sport. "If Goldengirl didn't do it," said Martha Watson, grinning, "nothing can do it." That served to show that such concern was usually less for the sport than for moral uniformity.
Towne said he had written the lesbian affair for its dramatic urgency; the danger, and the consequent romance would be greater. "But it's a natural thing to explore with athletes," he continued. "Skill and passion are not unrelated. It's an extension of their being children, of discovering what they are through their bodies, in competition, in love. Anything to do with sex—whether masculine or feminine—is just all on the way to defining what they are about." Then he issued a Dante-like curse: "People who can't think of anything else but whether the person you love is indented or convex should be doomed not to think of anything else but that, and so miss the other 95% of life." And of the movie.
As it happens, Chris Cahill and Tory Skinner break off their affair. Chris takes up with a skinny swimmer named Denny. So this is not, strictly speaking, a "lesbian" movie. Nor is it a preachy affirmation of going straight, for when Chris asks him how he feels about her having had a female lover, Denny mildly says, "I think we both like great-looking girls."