Personal Best


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Personal Best is a different take on the sports movie genre, first of all because it focuses on women's amateur sports, second because it is also a coming-of-age tale centered around its star, Mariel Hemingway, and third because it cast athletes rather than actors. Mariel plays a talented athlete who just doesn't know what she can do. She doesn't know if she has enough talent or the necessary killer instinct to be a champion. Her naiveté stretches to her personal life as well, where she's confused about her sexuality. She ends up getting a college track scholarship because her lesbian lover badgers the coach into giving her a try against his better judgment. Eventually she develops into a top pentathlete, but that presents a problem because it pits her directly against her lover for a spot on the Olympic team. The strain between the two athletes worsens when Mariel starts to get interested in boys.

While the film's storyline is  similar to any number of other sports movies, virtually everyone in the film is a genuine athlete. The woman who plays Mariel's female lover, Patrice Donnelly, really was a top-rated pentathlete and participated in the 1976 Olympics as a hurdler. The guy who played Mariel's male lover, Kenny Moore, ran the marathon in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, finishing fourth in the latter. Many other cast members made their one and only film appearance in this movie, nearly all of them athletes chosen for their ability to perform realistically on the field rather than their ability to deliver a line. Given the fact that even Mariel Hemingway seems to have been chosen for her athleticism rather than her Shakespearean line readings, Scott Glenn was the only real actor in the film. Despite that, the performances are generally credible. They have a sort of authenticity that makes up for their lack of smoothness. Mariel herself was not capable of playing many different kinds of roles at that point in her career. Basically her entire range consisted of  playing a 12-year-old girl trapped in the broad-shouldered body of a Norse goddess. As it turns out, that was exactly what this role called for, and she was immensely appealing in the psychological aspects of the role. Mariel also spent more than a year on the physical side, engaged in physical training which enabled her to look convincing when competing side-by-side with real athletes.

This was the first directorial effort from Robert Towne, who had previously established a successful career as a screenwriter, having received Oscar nominations for Shampoo and The Last Detail, and having won the statuette for Chinatown. Nearly two decades after Personal Best, Towne went on to direct another sports film,  Without Limits, a biographical story about the controversial runner Steve Prefontaine. That may have been Towne's best effort as a director, and his co-author on that script was none other than Kenny Moore, the same two-time Olympic marathoner who played Mariel Hemingway's boyfriend in Personal Best. Moore also had a small role in Tequila Sunrise, which means he was involved in 100% of Towne's directorial efforts in the latter's first 45 years in Hollywood. The string was broken with Ask the Dust in 2006.

by Tuna

Personal Best is a film that I had to like. First, it is a very authentic sports film made with actual athletes. Second, it shows a lesbian relationship, and then how one of the two turns to men, in very believable fashion. The banter and byplay among the professional athletes assembled for the remarkable cast was authentic as well, showing them in all their earthiness. All of that would have been enough for me to enjoy this film, but two added elements made it my sort of film. The first is that it was centered around the 1980 Olympics, when we boycotted the games. Not only was this completely unfair to athletes who had spent their entire life striving to attend these games, but it was politicizing an event intended to transcend politics. Isn't it bad enough that major sports athletes have become a commodity? Did we really think it was necessary to threaten the financial loss of an Olympic boycott to try and influence Russian foreign policy? This was not one of our finer moments.

Now to the positive side of why I love this film. Female athletes have far less chance of fame than male athletes, and even less chance of earning lots of money. Nevertheless, young female athletes are out there competing with every fiber of their being to achieve their personal best performances, and do heroic things with limited recognition and little opportunity for gain. In the 1988 Calgary Olympics, a young US speed skater, Bonnie Blair, had a good chance at one or more medals, and while I don't find speed skating exciting, I was inspired by her story, and watched all of her races. In the next to the last heat of the 500 meter, Blair's best event, the current world record holder, Christa Rothenburger, set a new world record. Last to skate was Bonny Blair, against a slow opponent, which is a real disadvantage. Bonnie won easily. What impressed me even more was her comment after the victory. A reporter asked about how worried she was when Rothenburger shattered the world record. Bonnie's answer, "It didn't bother me. I knew I had better times than that in practice." She continued to perform, eventually winning 5 gold medals and one bronze. She has now retired from sports, and makes a living as a motivational speaker. She is one of my heroes. Not only were her achievements extraordinary, but there was little hope of personal financial gain, and her attitude was inspiring.

Another example came in the 1998 Women's Open of golf. A 20 year old college student, Jenny Chuasiriporn, tied for the lead with a 40 foot putt at the end of regular play. She went into a playoff round against an established professional, and finally lost at the 18th hole of sudden death. An announcer ask her, "you must have been so disappointed to lose after everything." She said, "Are you kidding? I am just a college student; an amateur. I am thrilled to be here." She has not done as well as Bonnie Blair so far, and has not done well on the ladies pro tour. Still, I found her performance in the 1998 Women's Open inspiring.

That's the kind of pure dedication to sports and excellence that Personal Best brings to the screen. This is a wonderful film.


* Commentary by: writer-director Robert Towne, actor Scott Glenn, and actor/athlete Kenny Moore, who later co-wrote a script with Towne.

* widescreen anamorphic





4 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
81 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)




6.2 IMDB summary (of 10)

The film scores consistently across all demographic segments, and also scores 6.2 from the Top 1000 voters.





Box Office Mojo. Its appeal was limited. It never reached more than 236 theaters and grossed about five million dollars. It came nowhere near the top twenty R-rated films of 1982.





  • Patrice Donnelly - full frontal and rear nudity.
  • Kenny Baker - full frontal and rear nudity.
  • Mariel Hemingway - full frontal nudity, pre-implants.
  • Various other female athletes are seen naked in the sauna, primarily featuring  breasts.




Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


We both like it, Tuna more than Scoop. Tuna tends to agree with Roger Ebert's four stars and the vast majority of the critics, while Scoop is more on the side of the popular vote and feels that the IMDb's 6.2 gives a better picture of the film's merits. (That's still good, just not great.).

Despite our admiration, the film was not a popular success, and does not meet the minimum criteria for a B-.