Still sexy after all these years – profiles of Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly, stars of 1982 film ‘Personal Best’

Lucy Jane Bledsoe

In 1982’s Personal Best Hollywood Actor Mariel Hemingway and Olympic athlete Patrice Donnelly sparked controversy and runaway lust among lesbians nationwide as they fought, sweated, and made love on the silver screen. This groundbreaking film, Hollywood’s frankest treatment of lesbianism up to that time, follows four years in the life of up-and-coming track star Chris Cahill (Hemingway) as she strives to make the U.S. Olympic team. Along the way she falls in love with pentathlete Tory Skinner (Donnelly). In an irritating plot twist for lesbian fans, Chris leaves Tory for a man–but not before these two girl jocks and the women played them passed into history as lesbian icons. In these exclusive interviews, Hemingway and Donnelly talk to The Advocate’s Lucy Jane Bledsoe about how Personal Best affected their lives then and now.

In profile: Mariel Hemingway

“Personal Best came out before its time,” explains Mariel Hemingway. “People weren’t ready for it. The gay and lesbian communities were ready for it, but not the regular Joe. If that movie had come out ten years ago even, it would have been a whole different reception.”

Today Hemingway, who is the granddaughter of author Ernest Hemingway, continues to act in film and television. She also owns a yoga studio in Ketchum, Ida., where she lives with her husband, Stephen Crisman, and their two daughters, Dree and Langley.

Hemingway never batted an eye at the idea of portraying a lesbian athlete when she was just 17 years old. In fact, she got the offer to star in Personal Best thanks to another risky performance–as Woody Allen’s decades-younger girlfriend in Manhattan.

Surprisingly, Hemingway insists that no one tried to talk her out of playing a role that involved a nude love scene with another woman. “My parents were cool,” she says. “Nobody ever said anything, and rightly so. I would have thought they were ridiculous if they did.”

As the film neared production Hemingway discovered that other performers were not so open-minded. “I was astonished at how many actresses were all freaked out about auditioning for the other role,” Hemingway says. “And people you wouldn’t suspect! I mean, you would think they would be totally cool, but they were freaked. It was bizarre. They would come in and read, and then when it came to the kissing, either they’d be way overenthusiastic about it or totally terrified.”

The hard part of the job for Hemingway was the grueling athletic training, which started a year before filming. She says, “I thought it would never end. I thought I would have to hurdle for the rest of my life.” But doing the love scenes with costar Patrice Donnelly was all in a day’s work. “It’s no different than doing a love scene with a guy you’re not having a relationship with,” Hemingway says. “You’re doing it in front of a bunch of crew members. It was fine. I didn’t think anything of it.”

While filming Personal Best Hemingway didn’t think of Chris Cahill as a lesbian so much as just “young and figuring out her way in life. If you were to label it, I suppose she was bisexual. In truth, she fell in love with a woman, and then she fell in love with a man.”

Twelve years later, however, in a much-publicized 1994 episode of Roseanne, Hemingway played a decidedly lesbian character who smooched a startled Roseanne in a lesbian bar. “They called me up,” says Hemingway, “and I said, `God, that’d be fun.’ Also, for me it’s important to do things like that. Jar people out of their La-Z-Boys and make them deal with stuff.”

Hemingway’s still choosing roles that challenge sexual boundaries. “I’m doing a movie called The Sex Monster right now,” she notes, “and the irony is that it’s about a husband who wants his wife to do a threesome with another woman. He finally persuades me to do it and in doing so, I get totally into it. It’s like, be careful what you wish for.”

Hemingway is firm in her belief that none of it should matter. “In my perfect world,” Hemingway explains, “it’s like, whoever you fall in love with, you know? I think we have tendencies to be more drawn to a certain sex, but truthfully at a spiritual level, we should probably be less polarized than that.” Though she hasn’t had any lesbian experiences in her personal life, she muses, “It’s funny to me that I didn’t, but I just never did. I got married really young.”

As for Personal Best, Hemingway remains proud of her work both as an athlete and an actor. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says. “I learned a lot about myself on that show. I think it struck a chord. I think it holds a place for a lot of lesbian women, and I think that’s really cool.”

In profile: Patrice Donnelly

“I’m very fucking scared right now,” Personal Best’s Tory Skinner says in the moment before she kisses Chris Cahill. But kissing Mariel Hemingway was not a problem for real-life Patrice Donnelly, who played Tory. “It was great,” she says. “Are you kidding? It was wonderful.”

Today Donnelly lives in Studio City, Calif., where she works as a personal trainer and raises her 5-year-old son, Dillon. Openly bisexual, she doesn’t have a single regret about doing Personal Best. “People said, `Gee, now you’re going to be typecast as a dyke,'” Donnelly remembers. Her response: “Well, so? What’s the problem? If I only did lesbian roles for my entire career, I’d be thrilled.”

Getting the part of Tory Skinner was a dream come true for Donnelly. When friends introduced her to writer-director-producer Robert Towne, he told her he was doing a film about women athletes, and she offered to help. Donnelly was with Towne every day as he wrote the story, and he based much of both lead characters on her. She believed that “it was just a matter of time until they realized that I was the only one for this role.” But Donnelly endured Towne reading many other actors before he finally cast her just two weeks before filming began. “I was so excited,” she says about getting the part at last, “because it was my heart and soul.”

Though Donnelly had never acted, she had plenty of athletic experience, including making the 1976 Olympic team in the 100-meter hurdles and nearly making the pentathlon team as well. The track scenes were easy for her to play, but maintaining the intensity for the week it took to shoot the film’s famously sexy arm-wrestling scene was difficult. “One time my mind was wandering off, and Robert said, `Stop, everybody,'” Donnelly recalls. “He looked at me and said, `Sing the national anthem as loud as you can.'” By the time Donnelly finished singing, her face was red and strained, and she had regained her edge. The result is one of the hottest lesbian foreplay scenes ever filmed.

Even after all these years, lesbians still lust after Donnelly. She says she loves the fan mail she gets, and it makes her happy to be an icon for lesbian jocks. “I feel so proud to have played Tory. In a way, she was the first realistic lesbian character ever on the screen. There were lesbians in movies before, but this was the first time that being lesbian didn’t look like a disease. Personal Best showed us as good, wholesome, clean human beings who pursue excellence. It showed being a lesbian is not about deviance but about love.”

Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the author of Sweat, a story collection about women in sports, and a novel, Working Parts.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

You May Also Like

Hilary Rosen, 48, and Elizabeth Birch, 50, after 15 years together

Hilary Rosen, 48, and Elizabeth Birch, 50, after 15 years together HILARY ROSEN, 48, and ELIZABETH BIRCH, 50, after 15 years together. As…

Gay & lesbian COMICS SPECIAL for the new millennium

gay & lesbian COMICS SPECIAL for the new millennium – Brief Article Alonso Duralde Readers pick up their local gay and lesbian publ…

Sydney’s Harbour Bridge offers the best—and scariest—vacation workout for viewing the Australian metropolis

Climbing on top: Sydney’s Harbour Bridge offers the best—and scariest—vacation workout for viewing the Australian metropolis Scott Goetz…

Cultural shifts and supportive parents are leading gay youths to come out earlier, some before their teens

Young, gay, and OK: cultural shifts and supportive parents are leading gay youths to come out earlier, some before their teens Etelka Leho…