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That day, Towne and his first director of photography (he would have three), Rey Villalobos, shot 105,000 feet of film, as much as many whole movies shoot. Towne would throw most of it away, although he did keep a splendid slow motion shot of Cindy Gilbert making a personal best of six feet in the high jump and celebrating afterward. Towne juggled the script to take advantage of these events. By evening, Anderson and Gilbert were members of the cast. Other American record holders on board were Maren Seidler, shotput, and Deby LaPlante, 100-meter hurdles. Shotputter Al Feuerbach, discus thrower John Van Reenan and long jumper Martha Watson had prominent roles. The other pentathletes were Themis Zambrzycki, Marlene Harmon, Mitzi McMillan, Susan Brownell, Linda Waltman and Cindy Banks.
The difficult part of the older and more experienced of the two central characters, Tory Skinner, wasn't cast until a week before shooting started. No actress with a background in dance or gymnastics looked remotely believable going over a hurdle, or even doing high-knee exercises along with Hemingway. "I had no choice," said Towne. "It had to be a real athlete."
It was Donnelly, a 1976 Olympian in the 100-meter hurdles. "I know she's capable of the acting," Towne said, "and the only two creatures who have ever lived who are more graceful than Patrice Donnelly are Ruffian and Fred Astaire."
Though it was Towne's film, it was Warner Brothers' money. The casting of Donnelly was worrisome to studio executives because she was known to be exceptionally close to Towne. "It's crazy to use all athletes, they say," said Towne. "It's crazy to cast my girl friend, they say. And then they find that on the first day of dialogue shooting I assemble the best cinematographers I can get, and stars, and thousands of extras, and what do I do? I shoot pictures of the starting line." That he did, for the film's arresting opening scene, but it contributed to a theme that would only grow more insistent, the director's alleged dementia.
I took to Scott Glenn at once. A ropy, hard-muscled man, he had come to acting late after a spell in the Marines. A mountain climber and martial arts student, he asked systematic questions. By the end of the Trials, Glenn could really have been an acerbic, intimidating track coach. He played the villain in Urban Cowboy, stealing the picture from John Travolta. And he had been in Apocalypse Now, enduring a year's work and a typhoon in the Philippines in return for several seconds on the screen. "For insanity," he said, "Robert Towne has a long way to go to catch Francis Ford Coppola."
Glenn and I watched Hemingway do her first filmed athletic sequence, the 1976 100-meter hurdles. She was nervous because she had trained essentially alone, and now had seven of the country's best hurdlers alongside. She started poorly. They did it over. She hit a hurdle. Soon she was in tears. I got her away and we jogged a half mile on the practice track and made a deal. She would carry me in the acting and the other athletes and I would get her through her track and field. The jogging, more than the talk, settled her down and she ripped through the rest of the takes with ease. Later she learned she could kid me about the difference between real athletic performance and movie illusion. She used a little trampoline to execute a 6'1" high jump (her legitimate best was five feet) and said, "Much easier that way. Saves years of training." When I wrinkled my nose, she said, regally, "Remember, my real purpose here is to look magnificent." She was sublimely successful, but, for myself, I never got over the feeling that it was vaguely unfair to be allowed more than one take. You got no second chances in competition.
But then there was one time when Hemingway slipped up. Apparently it is a practice among some women to remove unwanted hair by applying hot wax to the region, letting it cool, and then stripping it and the offending stubble away. When Hemingway tried this between her eyebrows, she tore away a piece of her forehead, causing frantic rescheduling of her scenes until she healed. Thereafter, Towne would refer, for the benefit of those he wanted to stay presentable, to "Marie's $25,000 wax job."
Hemingway was penitent, but not crushed by the accident. We had dinner out and she had a fine time, signing autographs, "Mariel Faulkner."
The process of big-budget film making is without glamour. It is solving complicated problems of scheduling locations, transporting gear and people, projecting costs. The convenience of actors is far less important than the convenience of the hundreds of craftsmen trying to recreate life in all its tones and detail. So athletes on Personal Best had to get used to early hours and long waits and being told to do the opposite of what they had been told to do an hour earlier. There was natural grumbling when workouts were wiped out by some new lurch in movie demands.
Most athletes, your narrator included, felt divided. We wanted to help Towne achieve the best movie he could, yet we wanted to remain firmly planted in our version of reality. We found ourselves sneaking off for a run or to go fishing with an urgent sense of Tightness. One day Frederick and I picked strawberries and raspberries, and she created a spectacular mess in my kitchen making yogurt, sour cream and berry pies for the company. "Taste how untheoretical this is," she said, extending half a berry on the end of a spatula, "how instant and basic its reward."