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Friday Film Review: Personal Best

Friday Film Review: Personal Best

Personal Best (1982)
Genre: Sports/romance
Grade: C

I remember almost nothing about this movie when it initially was released but I got it in my head to try and find some movies about the Olympics and discovered that there aren’t too many Summer Games ones that could fit the bill. So, crossing my fingers I rented it from Netflix. Opinions on it seem to be all over the place from greatest depiction of athletes at sport to cheap exploitation of women to boring. My own thoughts are a mix. Some parts work well while others almost put me to sleep.

While at a track meet, pentathlete Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly), spies Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) running the hurdles. Impressed with her talent, Tory brings Christ to the attention of her coach Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn) who only reluctantly allows the younger woman to begin training with his athletes. As the two women become closer in their personal lives, they must try to balance the desire to win in the Olympic trials against their love for each other.

The sports part of “Personal Best’ is my favorite aspect of the film. Let me just say first that I enjoyed listening to the commentary track more than initially watching the movie the reason being that the director, Robert Towne, and Glenn speak a lot about what went into making that part realistic. Many of the incidents came from what US athletes told Towne actually happened to them at meets and during training. Glenn spent months with a top track and field coach, Donnelly is a former athlete at this level and Hemingway trained with top athletes for almost a year to get her moves right. It all pays off with realistic performances that are enhanced by having actual athletes acting in the film and competing on camera. Yet there are almost documentary moments throughout that drag and could probably have been cut or shown in a quick montage instead.

Which gets me to what didn’t work for me and that is the relationship between the two women. It’s not because watching two women squikes me out. It’s because Mariel Hemingway can’t act her way out of a wet paper bag. Patrice Donnelly is better and she was cast because of her athletic ability. As the film progresses, I started to play a game with myself trying to guess if – at the pivotal part of any particular scene – Mariel would end up crying or whining or both. It seemed to be all she could do and it unfortunately reduced the romance to something out of teenagers in high school. Scott Glenn then adds his usual taciturn assholic performance on top of that. There’s a scene when he yells at Chris to get her to suck up and start taking her sport seriously and I was cheering him on. After watching her pout and whinge there came a point when if I could have taken a high jump bar and beat Hemingway’s Chris I would gladly have done it. “Just. Shut. Up!”

In the commentary, Towne asserts that the famous sauna scenes were for authenticity and that he asked all the women if they were uncomfortable and offered to drape towels and shoot from specific angles if they wanted. He also volunteered the mostly male crew to film the scenes naked if the women felt that was more fair. He says the toned athletes took one look at the flabby crew and turned that offer down flat. Still there are lots of other scenes in the movie that had me shaking my head at the way Towne filmed them and the number of shots he used. Case in point is a section where the women are training for the high jump using the Fosbury Flop technique which involves them twisting and going backwards over the bar. The camera zooms in from their lower abs to their upper thighs and we get multiple views of wide legged back flops. I can only imagine what this looked like on the big screen and wonder why the director chose not to show them from the side or at least show their entire bodies instead of zeroing in on the crotches. Yet Towne also offered equal opportunity nudity with a frontal of Chris’s boyfriend at a late point in the film.

I wish that a stronger actor than Hemingway had been caste because I do like the low key way Towne directs the love scenes – as if there’s nothing wrong here, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing different from a heterosexual romance in this depiction of lesbian love in a 1982 movie. However this low key approach also works against the film and I’m going to go split personality to explain my feelings. It avoids the usual heightened sensationalism and heart tugging scenes that so many sports films rely on and that I usually loathe. You know, the “soaring music” moments designed to make you tear up and cheer at the same time. When you are blatantly manipulated to have “feel good” moments. Just a teensy bit of that might have helped here to separate some of the other athletes out and make them stand out as individuals. Instead, when we finally reach the Olympic Trials (supposedly for the 1980 games that the athletes already knew the US was boycotting), the full impact of that – awful for those competing – decision isn’t as walloping emotionally to us as it should have been. It isn’t until real sports commentators Frank Shorter and Charlie Jones mention it in a throwaway line that it even comes up in the story.

I’d love to see this movie, or a newer version of it, redone with better actresses, tighter editing and a pinch more emotion. In its day, it was daring but without a little more heart I ended up disconnected at the end and slightly bored by some of the lingering on the minutia of the training regimens. Still, the haircuts, music and fashion styles are a fun trip back in time.


Friday Film Review: Walk, Don’t Run

Friday Film Review: Walk, Don’t Run

Walk, Don’t Run (1966)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Grade: C+

My quest for Summer Olympic themed movies turned up three that I decided to review. There are lots of Winter Games but surprisingly few about the Summer ones. Oh, well. Honestly, were it not for the fact that I needed another to round out the Friday slots during these Summer Games (Hi, London!) I probably wouldn’t have done this one but beggars can’t choose so here goes.

Netflix has a nice, compact synopsis –

“When an English businessman (Cary Grant, in his final film performance) arrives in Tokyo, the influx of tourists for the upcoming Olympic Games makes it almost impossible to find lodging. He smooth-talks his way into sharing an apartment with a beautiful British woman (Samantha Eggar) and soon finds himself playing cupid for her and an American Olympic athlete (Jim Hutton).”

This is a remake of the WWII film “The More the Merrier” with Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea which has been updated to the 1964 Games in Tokyo. The huge influx of people for the Games accounts for the lack of hotel space which spurs the need for William Rutland to find a place to sleep for the two nights before his hotel reservations will be ready. Steve Davis is a US athlete who’s also in town early – he’s an architect studying the fusion of traditional Japanese architecture with post war modern. Trust me, you just have to go with the idea that in 1964 an athlete would arrive early, that there wouldn’t be a place for him in the Olympic quarters and that the team officials would leave him wandering around Tokyo looking for a place to sleep. The set up of the original works much better but I guess you work with what you’ve got.

Anywho, Samantha Eggar is the poor woman – whose punctuality makes Mary Poppins look like a slacker – patriotically offering to sublet her apartment via a posting in the British Embassy who ends up dodging the other two in the narrow hallways of her surprisingly roomy Tokyo apartment. I mean this place is huge for one person and I couldn’t help but wonder what monthly rent on a place this size would cost today. Probably more than I make in a year. It’s a good thing this movie is in color because Samantha’s hair is marvelous and the wardrobe people did a bang up job highlighting it with her clothes.

Jim Hutton (the father of Timothy) was a staple of 1960s movies usually playing a poor sap who gets swept away in the plot and merely reacts to everyone else. Much as he does here. He shows some brief episodes of comic chemistry with Grant and Eggar but mostly he’s kind of just there. Watch for when his Olympic event is finally revealed. It actually does fit the plot though I have to agree with Rutland’s acerbic comments about it. Acclaimed British actor John Standing plays Christine’s stuffy fiance. The character’s name, Julius D. Haversack, should tell you all you need to know about him. Oh, and keep a eye out for the two darling children who silently watch Rutland in action and George Takei (Ahead Warp Factor One, Mr. Sulu) in a bit part towards the end.

But the real reason to watch this is for Cary Grant doing everything he can, including humming the theme music from “Charade,” to get all the laughs he can from this material. Mostly he does better than anyone else. It’s definitely not among his best films but it’s not a total dog to go out on. And at least he plays his age here taking over the role Charles Coburn perfected and playing it a touch more suavely if no less manipulatively. His use of Japanese miniature electronics to save the day is inspired.

I think the mid 1960s is about as late as this plot – throwing unmarried men and a woman into one small apartment and then watching love blossom – could be expected to work. Once the 60s were officially swinging most of the impact and titillation factor was lost. But the film makers did a good job of utilizing the Tokyo backdrop to make the film look good and the sliding paper screens of the apartment to work the romance and comedy. It’s worth checking out if only to see the final hurrah of the great Cary Grant.