Publish date:


When Hollywood calls, who among us can turn away? Not the author, a writer-athlete who decided to put his personal best foot forward

Last June, weary of travel and work, I longed for the high forest. A fine, new, athletic friend had one week available, so we set off, on the advice of another friend, for "Indian Heaven," a region of lakes and meadows in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in the Washington Cascades. At the end of the road we shouldered our packs and hiked up a steep little trail we had selected while studying the map that morning. Within four miles we passed a dozen lakes. The undergrowth beneath slender noble firs was greening huckleberry. Once, my friend stopped short and I bumped into her, startling a herd of velvet-antlered elk grazing ahead. They thumped away over a cream and pink cloud of lady's slipper.

In the long afternoon light, we came down a sandy slope to the shore of Blue Lake. "This is the best," said my friend. There was a little wooded peninsula for a camp. Soon the tent was up and she had potatoes in the fire. I put a wet fly in the water and caught two cutthroat trout. One was fiery crimson from jaw to vent. Cleaning it we understood why. They were a matched pair, ready to spawn. Later I might see an omen in this. Then it was simply a taste of mountain caviar before dinner. I drew the cork on our bottle of wine.

The sound went across the water and reached the ears of a ranger walking the trail. He stopped and called out:

"Is your name Moore?"

The voice seemed to come from the trees, the mountaintop, from God. Finally we saw the ranger waving.

"Why on earth do you want to know?" I shouted.

"Let me come around," he yelled.

While he was walking, we decided it had to be something to do with the car. No one knew within 50 miles where we were.

He was an angular man, young, flushed at the success of his hunt. He unfolded a worn page of notepaper. "Los Angeles called," he said. "They need you back there in the morning." I sat down.

"It's Robert," said my friend.

"I hope it's not rude to ask," said the ranger, "but what do you do?"

"Didn't they tell you?"

"They just said that their company will lose $50,000 a day for every day you're not there. Hired a bunch of us to run you down."

"It's a movie." It was hard to say it. "But I thought it was done. Shooting was over."

The three of us sat at the fire and shared the wine and fish and potatoes, and thought it out. The ranger seemed embarrassed that it wasn't something else, something more vital. He complimented the fish.

"Any chance of bribing you to keep your mouth shut about finding us?" I said.

The ranger winced. "I promised I'd call," he said. There must have been a bounty.

"Well," said my friend to me, "you know you'll go back. We'll never get any sleep if you don't."

For a moment I thought she was wildly overestimating the strength of my conscience. "Why not?" I asked.

"Because of all the helicopters with searchlights that Robert Towne will send to hunt us."

So we hiked out, a forced march in the fading light, at last coming to the edge of the trees to see the huge, broken silhouette of Mount St. Helens, a column of its steam rising against a color-charged sky, a sky the hue of a cutthroat trout about to spawn.

I got to Los Angeles the next morning, but I wasn't needed. It took another day to get 18,000 square feet of parachute silk tied down over the UCLA pool and to arrange dry-ice fog-making machines at its edges. Then we worked, Mariel Hemingway and I repeating a scene we had already done without the fog lying on the water. The carbon dioxide gave us headaches. "The fog, the mists are a leitmotiv throughout the film," said the director, Towne. "I always knew if we got a day ahead of schedule I wanted to re-shoot this scene."

I gravely described the circumstances of my capture. Caleb Deschanel, the director of photography who shot The Black Stallion, was delighted. "That is one of the alltime great movie stories," he said. Towne showed some sympathy. "If I'd only known where you were, we could have put this off for postproduction. But you see the importance of the mists parting.... It's not just a director's conceit."

By the time I got home to Oregon my new friend was off to Europe for the summer. I don't know. It seems things have never been quite the same between us since then. But she was right. Like it or not, I'd had to go.

It began with a favor to a friend. In March of 1980, a host of Olympic athletes was brought to the White House to be told by President Jimmy Carter that the U.S. would not be going to the Moscow Olympics. Afterward, pentathlete Jane Frederick and I had a disconsolate dinner in Georgetown. "Change the subject," she said. "Oh, I know. I've helped with a screenplay, and the writer and director, Robert Towne, wants to shoot at the Olympic Trials in Eugene. Will there still be Trials?"

"I'm sure there will be."

"Well, there's some problem in getting permission from the university or the Oregon Track Club or something. You live there. Fix it."

"Didn't Towne write The Last Detail?" I asked.

"And a lot of Bonnie and Clyde" said Frederick, "and co-wrote Shampoo and all of Chinatown."


Back home I called the retired Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman. "Yeah, they had some unctuous types up here in the winter," he said. "Promised to keep their cameras off the field and then were overheard saying, 'We can agree to anything now and then run them on when the time comes.' We ran them off."

As well, University of Oregon Vice President Curtis Simic had said the script was so objectionable that permission to shoot at Oregon's Hayward Field would not be forthcoming. That was thought-provoking, when one considers that Animal House was filmed at the university in Eugene.

I called Towne with what I had learned. He said the advance man he had sent to secure the location had been none other than George Roy Hill, the director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. He was no longer with the film. "He didn't understand how crucial shooting at the Trials is," Towne said. "The film is going to succeed or fail on its sense of reality. You can't just go out to a high school track and fake the Olympic Trials."

"Things like that seem to have been tried in a lot of sports movies," I said.

"Tried, yeah," he said. "You're an athlete. Has it ever worked?"

I had been an Olympic marathoner in 1968 and '72, and I thought of the cold disdain I had felt while watching such films as Goldengirl and Running, the sense of lingering insult to real athletes. "No," I said. "No way."

Towne sent me a copy of the script, which indeed contained the corrosive language he is noted for, both in writing and in conversation. ("I'm such a Romantic," he would say when I got to know him, "that without the vulgarity I turn into a bottle of Log Cabin syrup.") But nothing in the script offended my knowledge of my sport. Its title was Personal Best, and it covered four years in the lives of two women pentathletes, Chris Cahill and Tory Skinner, beginning at the 1976 Trials and concluding at the 1980 Trials. Its threads were many, including a sexual relationship between the two women, but its core seemed part of every athlete's story: how to do your best, how to deal with the ferociousness of competition with people you respect and love.

Maybe Eugene had been a little hasty. Perhaps the officials might be persuaded to reconsider. "We will abide by any rules they set," swore Towne. "We have no choice."

I made the rounds. The university president hadn't personally decided on the issue, but consulted with his aide, Simic. And the Oregon T.C., which had charge of the Trials, didn't seem adamantly opposed to a film, but wouldn't think of bucking Bowerman, the club's founder and a man of powerful moral certitude. And Bowerman was set against any film company's disrupting the Trials.

Towne brought Mariel Hemingway and Scott Glenn, who were cast as Cahill and her caustic, hard-driving coach Terry Tingloff, to Eugene in April 1980. They held long meetings with all the decision-makers. Had Towne been a believer in omens he probably would have given up. No sooner had he seated himself in Simic's office for what loomed as a difficult conversation, than a despairing student threw himself to his death from the third floor of the building, passing within Towne's view as he fell. Towne and Simic stood at the window and stared at the scene of calling, running, shocked people below. Finally, his head inclined against the glass, Towne whispered, "I think we ought to put this off for a little while."

At length, Oregon's then-President William Boyd, in a delicate shift, said the university had no objection to the script, and would give permission if it were acceptable to the Oregon T.C., which meant Bowerman.

Bowerman was and is my coach. The greatest honor I can do special friends is to take them to meet him and walk his hillside above the McKenzie River. Yet he was unyielding. "Ask me anything but that," he said, when I requested he meet with Towne. It was Bowerman's friend and neighbor and attorney, John Jaqua, who finally set it up.

Towne had been in Eugene a week by now, and seemed near the end of his rope. Driving up to Bowerman's, he said, "I don't know what to say to him. I have no sense of Bill Bowerman besides the amazing respect he commands." His hands were shaking.

Bowerman met us coolly. He placed us in soft chairs and for himself took a hard straight one. I gave a little summary, concluding that the decision was now up to him. He turned to Towne.

Towne hesitated, seeming lost, wild-eyed. "I looked at Bowerman," he would say later, "and I suddenly knew that here was that rare man who isn't controlled by bureaucratic fears or others' opinions. I understood that if he decided that I was one percent more right than wrong, he would support me."

Thus encouraged, Towne began a remarkable performance. Softly, he traced the origins of the project, from meeting Jane Frederick in the UCLA weight room in 1976 and, through her, coming to know and be affected by the world of female track athletes. He had written the screenplay with the help of Frederick, javelin thrower Kate Schmidt and hurdler Patrice Donnelly. He was determined to approach the highest level of reality. He would use world-class athletes in all but two roles. Hemingway, who'd grown up a skier in Idaho, had been training for the pentathlon events of hurdles, shotput, high jump, long jump and 800 meters for 18 months.

Towne's graying hair rose about his head as he pressed on, explaining something of his motives, his feeling for athletes. "I see a purity in their desire always to be better, to jump higher, run faster. I think at heart I took up the project in a deeply emotional way when my daughter was a year old; watching her desire to walk, her struggle to make her hands move in a new way, seeing her joy at physical progress. That's the way athletes are, that's what they go through their pain for, and women athletes cannot help but emerge with a compelling combination of strength and sensitivity."

Bowerman sat, impassive and unreadable. Towne churned on, saying he wanted to do a movie that showed track and field as it had never been shown before, its beauty, its lonely difficulty, and that it was absurd to think of doing it anywhere but in Eugene and at the Trials. He expressed some frustration at Eugene's not seeming to believe him. "They say I'm crazy in the industry for using real athletes, but I can't understand Eugene's not wanting to give me my best shot at showing something that Eugene loves as much as I do...."

Bowerman held up a hand. "You stay off my track," he said in a tone that I knew, a pronouncement. "You stay off my infield. And I don't care if you photograph each other——yourselves under the stands."

At first it didn't sink in. Towne went on agreeing to every condition, coming up with new arguments. Even in the car he said, "You really think it's all right now?"

And, of course, it was. The Oregon Athletic Department would even end up being the agency that supplied thousands of extras for the crowd scenes.

I took Towne and Hemingway and Glenn to the plane. As soon as I got home the phone was ringing. It was Towne in Los Angeles, saying, "You know that goof of a swimmer, Denny, who comes in near the end? Well, Mariel and I want you to read for that part."

Everybody should have a phone call like that, as a test of cardiac fitness. I knew him well enough to know he was serious. But he just didn't understand. "Hey, no," I said. "I can understand your being grateful that things turned out...."

"I don't cast out of gratitude." He was angry.

"But I've never...I'm shy, I get embarrassed...I became a writer so I wouldn't have to talk."

"You're an athlete," he said with disturbing finality. "And the character is easily embarrassed."

Writhe though I might, that theme, authenticity, was his hook. If I wanted to help the film be true, he insisted, I wouldn't resist his judgment in what he knew best.

I made no promises. In the next days I brooded. Then Towne arrived with Patrice Donnelly and had me read through Denny's scenes. "You're in deep trouble now," he said afterward, relishing my discomfiture. "The only thing that will get you out of it is if you photograph too old." (Denny is supposed to be in his mid-20s. I was then 36. "Skinny to the point of disfigurement," said Frederick, "but reasonably well preserved.")

Thus I was to take a screen test. I flew to Los Angeles and reported to Towne's office in the Burbank Studios, having parked in Clint Eastwood's parking space. Towne took me to his innermost sanctum, a steam room. His credentials are impressive, including experience on a tuna boat out of San Pedro; an education in philosophy and the classics at Pomona College; a reputation as Hollywood's preeminent script doctor, called in the middle of the night to save scenes or whole movies when all else had failed; the ability to command a fee of one million dollars for an original screenplay; an Oscar for Chinatown. Yet he is a strikingly informal man, and I soon came to feel that such achievement was only natural for someone of his antic, relentlessly probing and ultimately serious mind. Tacked above his desk I had seen the opening pages of what he considered his life's work, Greystoke, a yet-to-be-done Tarzan film that he had spent years researching. Later he would say that choosing Personal Best for his directorial debut was in part to prepare himself for Greystoke.

"I give you my word that playing Denny will not be contrary to your own character," he said, as the steam hissed into the room. A screen test, I learned, wouldn't be simply a little pacing and talk before the camera, as I had imagined, but a full day's acting, to discover one's ability to benefit from direction. "Tomorrow you and Mariel will simply do the weightlifting scene, which, by the way, is an echo of how I met Jane. It will be easy for you; you're at home in a weight room. What's 15 more technicians and cameramen and arc lights and sound and makeup and prop men and costume people and hairdressers getting in your way?"

He discussed the demands of screen acting. "Minute changes in that 40-foot image of a face tell everything to a movie audience, so the worst thing is to act, to overdo it. Screen acting is subtlety, it's containment. The camera digs out what is really there. It makes a cruel joke of what is fake." The steam thickened. Towne loomed out of it, a Biblical specter, droplets on his beard, while he spoke, then receded while I pondered. The key seemed to be in the ability to let go for a time, to allow natural responses to break through and inform one's lines with thought, with genuine reaction. "It will be my job to spur you, or soften you, or maybe infuriate you," he said, "so that what the camera sees is real. But I won't violate you."

My anticipated throes of embarrassment weren't realized, as the film crew adopted a professionally humane attitude. They ignored me. Stage 11 was a cold, cavernous barn with little green dressing rooms and dozens of lights shining on a Universal machine and a set of weights. The work taught me the basic pattern of developing a scene. First a "master" was done, a wide angle shot that records the whole of the action, and into which the later closeups and other angles can be cut. The demands of the weightlifting kept the demands of the acting to a minimum. Mariel had trained well. Seventy pounds was on the barbell we had to bench press six times apiece, take after take, all day, and I got wobbly before she did, which was the way the scene was written. "Life imitating art imitating life," said Towne happily.

Mariel and I sat together during a break. "You're doing great," she said. She was 18 and, though she often seemed preternaturally mature, now the bubbly kid had taken over.

Nearby, observing us, paced several stunning actresses waiting to try out for the part of Tory. "They are visions," I said, "but there is something troubling to me about their obvious hunger to put themselves forward."

"I know," she said. Mariel herself had been drawn into films when she was 13, not by burning ambition but by a director's need to find a little sister for Margaux Hemingway in Lipstick. What better than the real thing? "This is not," she said, "what I want to do for my entire life." Regarding the transparently eager actresses, she observed, "Sometimes there's a Catch-22. Sometimes someone who wants to do this desperately kind of prevents it from happening. But someone who is relatively indifferent"—she patted my knee—"can walk right in."

A couple of days later, the printed takes were ready. The whole crew trooped up some stairs to projection room 6. I thought I was calm, equally able to accept any verdict.

"Stop grinding your teeth," said Donnelly.

My first sharp impression as the images lit the screen was that there had been a cruel trick. That man wasn't me. The jolt was comparable to when, as a child, I first heard my voice played back on a tape recorder, but this was far more potent. I was comically knock-kneed. The closeups were excruciating, my eyes seeming to be on the verge of rolling out of my head. My leisurely pace of talk seemed a speech impediment. There was laughter. In the last few takes I just concentrated on watching Hemingway, who is beautiful.

The lights came up and people crowded around. Towne, astonishingly, shoved them aside and hugged me hard, saying there was no going back now, that he had just learned a lot about how to use Hemingway and me. I walked out in a kind of icy, consternated disbelief. Discovered.

The pentathlon was on the opening day of the Olympic Trials. Frederick aggravated a hamstring injury before the long jump and withdrew. Jodi Anderson won the event with a near-American-record 4,697 points.

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."

Even so, any athlete was free to call a halt to things if he or she saw authenticity about to be abused. Before a scene in which the athletes, on tour in Cali, Colombia, have arrived to find the dormitories unfinished, Seidler and Watson went through a carefully dressed set hurling suitcases and sweatsuits from beds and lockers. "We were at the Pan American Games in Cali in 1971," they said.

"Go to it," said Towne, restraining his set decorator. As well, athletes watched the dailies, searching for little mistakes, and helped, sometimes with memos to Towne, in blocking out sporting sequences. "I have to admit," admitted Cindy Banks, "the guy did his homework before he got here."

A great deal was shot in slow motion, Towne's conviction being that that was the way to enhance and make clear the usually invisible power and near-eroticism of muscular effort. He also came to see high-speed photography as a dramatic instrument. "A half-second in slow motion allows you to read a face better, in less time, than regular speed. It's as if you slow down the wind-ruffled surface of a pond and can then see into the pond. You find yourself looking at the souls of these women. It is a profoundly reassuring human beauty."

No one could teach him how to do this. "I asked for someone knowing more than I," he said. "I got it. The film, looking back at me."

We were uprooted before we were finished in Eugene, having to use locations in L.A., and would return later in the summer. As I was the only athlete cast against type, or at least against sport, I had no scenes with the other athletes. I came to the Burbank studios alone at the appointed time and was told what you were always told when you got there—"We don't need you until tomorrow." I was driven to the Safari Motor Inn, about a mile from the studios. The desk clerk was a slender man wearing a clingy silk shirt and a chest chain upon which swung a mace. He had a hooked nose, flaring nostrils, a vacant giggle and several inch-long fingernails. These he raked over my forearm and wrist and palm, finally taking the credit card which had been there all the time between my thumb and forefinger. "You're in such luck" he said. "Today we are opening a new wing. Your room has never been used before." He leaned near. I leaned back. "A virgin room," he breathed.

The door of this was ajar. The room had no phone, no sheets, no towels. Workmen had just installed the carpet and were sweeping up the scraps. Dust rose.

I ran in the hills. There was smoke everywhere, Southern California being in its flammable phase. Above DeBell Golf Course I was hailed and asked to come help prevent a brushfire from crossing a gully and endangering a house. I leaped at the chance, fighting it with wet burlap and a spade. I noticed a couple of my hosts had already had their eyebrows singed. Wax or fire, I knew, wouldn't be a crucial distinction for Towne. But soon the blaze was under control.

Jogging back, I was like Frederick with her raspberry pies, uplifted to have done a tangible service. But the hills, brown where there had been fire, were just as brown where there had not. When I went to draw the drapes in my room a piece of hardware gave way and I was buried in dusty folds of fabric. Seidler, on her way to the airport, stuck her head in. "Looks like Cali, Colombia in here," she said.

In the studios, where most interiors were shot, or on the fields of Pierce Community College in Woodland Hills, things could never be called tranquil, but progress through the charts of scenes was steady. There were even days, a few, when the experience bore some resemblance to movie imaginings: a rehearsal in Towne's trailer or office, a stroll to the set, being dressed and coifed to Towne's specifications, being arranged in pleasing positions before the cameras (taking the places of stand-ins, those poor, patient people on whom the cameramen framed shots), doing the scene, then again, finding the work similar to writing, at least that stage of writing where one refines tone and cadence to heighten an effect. Then a break while grips and carpenters knock out a wall, rearrange the lights, reset the camera. I felt oddly sultanlike seeing these labors performed all for the fanciful notion that I'd look better from the left, with the light filtered slightly.... Then Hemingway and I (all my scenes were with her) would be called in, find our marks and share my Chapstick or a tidbit of gossip, and when we performed sometimes I would be so entranced by her acting, so close, so real, that I'd go slack. Then Towne would make me do pull-ups or jog around the building. At the end of the day I was always astonished at how tired I was. At the time, those days didn't seem exceptionally rewarding; survival was my focus. But they were the best we would ever have.

In July 1980, the Screen Actors Guild struck all the major studio productions over the issue of sharing future videocassette, disc and pay-television proceeds. Towne asked for an exception because Personal Best's athletes, though Guild members, weren't really actors. The Guild said no. Strangely, Warner's resisted this as well. Towne sued them both, struggling, he said, "like a fly in amber," against the industry's abandonment of the athletes. If the strike went on very long, it was clear that the athletes could never be regathered.

So Towne refinanced the picture to get it away from Warner's and it became an independent production. He was then able to deal with the actors union, agreeing in advance to meet whatever terms it won from the whole industry.

The money to continue, $11 million, came from record producer David Geffen, who was John Lennon's manager. Geffen told Towne that since he, Geffen, had no commitment from a major distributor to market the film once it was done, he was taking a significant risk. In return he extracted a price. "Against going overbudget, I was asked to put up my house and my car," said Towne. He seemed to do so almost blithely. "I'd have paid to finish this film. I never realized the depth of my own insanity."

Shooting resumed in Eugene in September. The weather held. Towne had taken advantage of the hiatus to do some hiring and firing. The new director of photography was Michael Chapman (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver), a bristly, red-haired Bostonian. The classic Towne vignette, enacted daily, would begin with the director calling loudly for someone, taking the subject aside and commencing a sotto voce revelation, which would fade out until Towne was staring agitatedly into the sky or at the grass or the crowd, finally wandering off, possessed by some unshareable but surely lightning succession of internal images which had obscured what he wanted to say. By contrast, Chapman was quick, efficient and had an infectious, erudite sense of humor that reached Towne in his internal debates. Things began to hum.

The town where the fictional Chris Cahill and Tory Skinner live and train is the very real San Luis Obispo, Calif. We were six weeks there. On the second day Hemingway and I did a scene in a restaurant, Chris and Denny getting to know each other. I'd always wondered whether in movies it was real beer the actors were drinking. It was in this one. Coors for Chris, Dos Equis for Denny. After a morning's takes I was tanked. Towne fooled around, letting the camera run after the scene stopped, forcing us to improvise, his rule being that you never, ever, came out of character until you heard "cut." Despite my debilitation, things went well, and one of our lines was added to the scene. I staggered to the hotel quite pleased, thinking this acting business was a piece of cake.

That lasted about a day and a half, until a scene in the street at night. In the script, Denny has walked in on Chris and Tory in what seems a compromising situation. Thinking Chris lied to him when she had said her relationship with Tory was over, Denny stalks out, wounded. Chris runs after him, trying to drag him back. He is cold with her. She rages at him for believing that she would lie. He turns away. She hits him in the back, driving him once again into the night. This was going to be trouble.

After a fairly encouraging rehearsal, Towne booted me from his trailer. "Walk around out there," he said. "Get cold."

We were in a residential neighborhood of old houses and large trees, dark and quiet now at 11 p.m. For some reason it entered my mind to really feel the shock and loss Denny was to experience. I paced and grieved over old hurts until I eventually worked myself into a state of sour desolation. I didn't want to be dragged back, I didn't want to even see her, she's lied to me....

We began, the arc lights blazing, a crowd gathering. But it was wrong. My movements didn't fit the sense of the words. My emotional state, overdone, made it practically impossible for me to respond, either to Hemingway or to Towne's attempts to fix the scene. He cast about for some alternate structure to hang the action on. "Try it like this," he said. "Inside, you're wild for her, the experience has made you want her more powerfully.... " But I couldn't. After a while I just felt lost inside. When Hemingway, so perfectly acting the ripped, hungry lover, grabbed me, I didn't react at all, except with distaste and stiffness.

At four in the morning the lights went down and the crew went home, not one good take achieved, $50,000 burned up for nothing. In the sudden darkness I was disoriented, flooded with remorse. I threw down the car keys I'd had to carry, feeling I'd horribly abused Towne's trust, but I couldn't understand why.

Later, Glenn said. "It happens." (It would happen to him in San Luis Obispo, too. He and Towne would endure 21 takes to get a scene right.) "It happens. But it's not your fault."

"It's my fault," said Towne the next day. "You would never behave the way Denny was written there." So he rewrote the scene, allowing Denny, far from being cold, to half-carry Chris back to her house. His departure into the night would be caused by his not knowing how to deal with her sudden devotion to him.

I worried about it for a month, taking 25- and 30-mile runs through the area's vineyards and coastal roads. Then we went back and tried it again and it worked. The main difference, to me, was that this time I skipped the method-actor's despond and started from neutral. The difference, to Towne, was the rewrite. He insisted we both were correct. "Whatever gets in the way, writing or preformed emotions, it's a violation of the actor's character," he said.

In mid-December, Geffen ordered Personal Best stopped. On Dec. 23, Towne closed it down, with three weeks of work to do. Without those weeks the film would be gibberish. "This movie will never survive now," Warren Beatty told Towne. "They'll write it off." To that point, it had cost $11 million. For six months, though interest charges were mounting at a rate of $60,000 a week, the film clung to life. This seemed to be solely because of Towne's machinations, marshaling friends, calling in favors and exploiting a strong legal position.

"You don't expect to die, exactly," he said. "But you don't expect to live, either. They'll have to kill me. If they do that, they'll stop me. If they don't, they won't."

By then I knew that whatever his eccentricity, it wasn't due to any derangement, but was a function of stability. The rock of his character was wanting his work to be good. Towne was suffering not for being nuts but for being a sane human being in a pursuit shot through with madness.

And he was suffering. He told of the film editor who had a heart attack while at a screening with Jack Warner. "He didn't want to annoy Warner, so he silently died. In war it's heroism. In movies it's a bad joke. It's hilarious."

Finally, through Elaine May and Allen Klein, who had managed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, negotiations succeeded in bringing the film back to Warner Bros. for release. Towne gave up all he had left to give. For a million dollars in credit, he surrendered the right to do his beloved Greystoke. The studio would give it to another director.

"Loss of Greystoke is heartbreaking," he said. "But if I had not lost it that way I'd have lost it because of all the things that were said about me. If I was ever to be considered sane again, I had to finish, and let the film be my answer."

So we wrapped it up in July, a full year after we had begun at the Trials. Mariel and I were in the fog-covered pool for the last take.

"That's over," she said.

"Be serious," I said.

That was six months ago. Since then Towne has been driving himself and two editors to carve a two-hour dramatic experience out of the small warehouse of film he exposed. "A movie as it develops has a life of its own," he said last week. "You have to let it complete itself."

It took its own sweet time. In September I happened to be in Los Angeles and paid a visit. Towne came out of his shower wrapped like a mummy in pink towels. "Remember those nights of misery in San Luis Obispo?" he said. "That scene is history."


"It's gone. Out of the movie. Didn't need it. The complexity of Denny's character is already established. It's cheap to have him be a dramatic convenience, stumbling into the night only to return at the crucial moment of the Trials."

I had to agree, at least objectively. But I was queasy for a moment at all the work and turmoil of those nights gone for nothing. "No wonder actors don't edit," I said.

I've seen bits and pieces of the movie. The more that is cut from my scenes the better I seem to do, although they are still hard to watch. The climactic 800 meters is compelling, firing my runner's instincts, drawing me into battle each time I've seen it.

Yet who can say how audiences will react to the movie? Sheer athletic authenticity, which is all this viewer can guarantee, by itself cannot bind story and performance into a satisfying whole. Perhaps Personal Best will be offensive to some precisely because of its unsparing authenticity, if only regarding athletes' sexuality. During the Trials, when word—usually exaggerated—of the leading characters' affair got around, there were some coaches and athletes who worried that the film would hurt or set back women's sport. "If Goldengirl didn't do it," said Martha Watson, grinning, "nothing can do it." That served to show that such concern was usually less for the sport than for moral uniformity.

Towne said he had written the lesbian affair for its dramatic urgency; the danger, and the consequent romance would be greater. "But it's a natural thing to explore with athletes," he continued. "Skill and passion are not unrelated. It's an extension of their being children, of discovering what they are through their bodies, in competition, in love. Anything to do with sex—whether masculine or feminine—is just all on the way to defining what they are about." Then he issued a Dante-like curse: "People who can't think of anything else but whether the person you love is indented or convex should be doomed not to think of anything else but that, and so miss the other 95% of life." And of the movie.

As it happens, Chris Cahill and Tory Skinner break off their affair. Chris takes up with a skinny swimmer named Denny. So this is not, strictly speaking, a "lesbian" movie. Nor is it a preachy affirmation of going straight, for when Chris asks him how he feels about her having had a female lover, Denny mildly says, "I think we both like great-looking girls."

I kind of like old Denny. He may not be as goofy as he looks.





Towne swears he's sweeter than syrup.



A weighty screen test of the knock-kneed Moore was life imitating art imitating life.



In Towne's steamy inner sanctum the director put forth his pledge of nonviolation.



Casting caused another dilemma: Why couldn't a dancer look more like a hurdler?



For eager actors the call is "curtain up"; for reluctant ones it's just the opposite.



A guarantee of financing to finish the film required Towne to put up his car and house.



Glittery illusions of glamour were short-lived.



Off the truck Towne's commitment to realism included drinking scenes.



They all said Towne was crazy. His only answer was to finish the film.