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Years ago one of my favorite actors was John Cassavetes, but then he started writing and directing his own films, casting his wife and friends, too, and the quality of his performances and movies declined in direct proportion to his involvement. I came to call this the Cassavetes Syndrome. Cassavetes is hardly the only one in Hollywood 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 that film.
The most recent victim to be struck down in his prime is Robert Towne, who has long been recognized as one of the finest screenwriters in the world. Towne wrote The Last Detail, an exquisitely fashioned piece of work; he won an Academy Award for Chinatown, a script of such classic quality that it is often singled out for study in college courses.
Now Towne has written Personal Best, a movie about female athletes. Alas, he has also directed and produced Personal Best; Towne has such an extreme case of Cassavetes Syndrome that he could be the poster child for this malady. It would be a cheap shot to call his film Personal Worst, though it would also be an understatement. It is almost inconceivable how any man could produce such excellent work and then turn out something so tedious and garbled.
The film is about two pentathletes, who are both competitors and lesbian lovers. The difficulty of competing against someone you love is an intriguing problem, most recently examined—heterosexually—in The Competition, and Personal Best is very topical because lesbianism in women's athletics has recently been in the news. But the serious nature of these themes makes the film's failure all the greater, all the more obvious.
The subject of homosexuality is never really addressed in Personal Best, either by the two women involved or by the other characters. The whole issue was further confused for me when the younger woman ( Mariel Hemingway) then takes a male lover (Kenny Moore), a water polo player, with no more inner conflict or compunction than when she took her female lover (Patrice Donnelly). Are we to think that the business 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, but she just says no. she'd rather not, and that's that. So much for drama. In sporting parlance, the film not only loses, it also chokes.
The principal characters are not only almost all unappealing and unsympathetic, but they also lack any real definition. The older woman, played by Donnelly, a former world-class hurdler, is a dark and brooding presence who trails off into bitchy whining. Hemingway sets a pr for vacuity, displaying more prowess at athletics than acting. Scott Glenn, the coach, in his first role since his magnificently evil ex-con in Urban Cowboy, is at sixes and sevens, getting the most conflicting signals of all from the script and the director. Glenn has one marvelous speech about coaching women—"I could have been a man's coach. Do you really think that Chuck Noll has to worry that Terry Bradshaw is going to cry if Franco Harris won't talk to him?"—but ultimately we are left with the impression that he chooses to be a women's coach because that way he can sleep with his athletes.
Moore is an Olympic marathoner (1968 and '72), now a writer for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and—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 base and as embarrassing a moment as ever tarnished the silver screen.
At the other extreme, there's one scene of the two women running together, struggling up a sand dune, that tells more of devotion and competition than the whole rest of the film; not coincidentally, the scene is without dialogue. Unfortunately, the cinematography of the track sequences isn't up to that standard. In fact, I thought the rather graphic lesbian love scenes were photographed with more visual sensitivity than the athletic ones. There's also plenty of frontal nudity and a steady diet of four-letter words, much of which could have been avoided without any loss of verisimilitude. Furthermore, away from the high-jump pit, the steam room and the bedroom, the athletes seem to spend most of their time smoking dope and drinking beer. There is a tendency in movies like Personal Best to overemphasize the seamy side of competition so that promoters can advertise that it isn't "just" a sports movie. Better, apparently, that it's "just" rubbish?