I was lucky that I began seeing films when I did. The beginnings were auspicious - "Far from the Madding Crowd", "Butch Cassidy", "If ...." - but, much as I thought all of these were wonderful films, much as all but "If ...." have stayed with me all this time, I never viewed any of them but once until the advent of DVD, and I'd qualify none as "my favourite film". My favourite film is on offer right here, and it was something I saw four times on its first run.
One thing about "Personal Best" that has, I think, inhibited its recognition is the fact that nobody much has really seen it for what it is. Coming out in 1982, a year after "Chariots of Fire" had taken North America by storm (I've never figured that out yet), "Personal Best" was labelled as a track-and-field film. It also was a new sort of shocker, so the Lesbian theme got a lot of play, and, indeed, one reviewer headed his piece "Chariots of Desire". Its resurgence today is what's apparently "cult status" as a Lesbian film, although a cultist in 2008 would probably remark on the absence of raunch.
I spotted in 1982, and saw even more clearly today, that the film has a nice Californian theme - expectations, how we handle other people's expectations, and how we turn them into competitiveness. It's really the story of Chris - how she outgrows her father's expectations, Tingloff's expectations, and even her lover Tory's expectations - to take control of what she really wants for herself, an Olympic pentathlon place. The end (BIT OF A SPOILER) is wonderful in the process, with Chris persuading the injured Tory to forget what's expected of her and go for the victory she too wants for herself.
Towne's great risk, asking as much improvisation as he could of his cast rather than handing them a fully-written screenplay, has worked wonderfully. Scott Glenn, with the most professional experience, has done it best and produced a Tingloff nowhere near the monster the athletes make him out to be; the other professional principal, Mariel Hemingway's still soft and immature Chris, can also imagine good lines (and tearful faces) for herself. But it's an amateur, Patrice Donnelly as the hard-edged and competitive Tory, who turns out to be the best natural actress. And I'll say only one thing about the Lesbian theme; the Donnelly-Hemingway love scenes, react as you will, are moving, MOVING.
Track and field has to play a part. All the girls show an almost choreographed grace, Tingloff is a coach devoted to coaching, and Hemingway's coltish grace is suggestive of her university track background; but, once more, the character to watch is Tory - Donnelly probably moves more beautifully than anyone you've seen, and her visible swallowing of her discomfort, whatever efforts she's making, is a wonderful piece of characterization.
The more you see of "Personal Best", the more you'll see in it; I suggest forgetting the Lesbianism and the track and field - the expectations theme will take you over in its time. So will Patrice Donnelly; and you'll wonder why no awards, not even a future career, awaited her because of her part in this film.