The modest new film Heart Like a Wheel is one of the most likable movies of the year, and its modesty is one of the most likable things about it. There’s nothing flashy or extraneous about director Jonathan Kaplan’s handling of the life story of tradition-breaking drag racer Shirley Muldowney (after a screenplay by Ken Friedman). In steering clear of excess and phoniness, Kaplan captures a sharp sense of life-as-lived as opposed to life-gassed-up-for-movie-cameras – without getting goody-goody about it. He does this by providing a strong structure for the story, and rooting the decisions and emotions of the characters in smart filmmaking technique.
The relationship between Muldowney and rival/crew chief/lover Connie Kalitta is framed by similar sequences: the camera moves around them, describing an arc, as Shirley and Connie exchange glances (and Kaplan cuts between the two of them) after Connie has made an honest offer of help (and sometime after he has made his randy intentions explicit). At the end of their love affair – though that is happily not the end of their relationship – Kaplan repeats this camera movement, but it goes the opposite direction, and suddenly we know, after all the ups and downs of the affair: well, yes, it’s over now, of course. Nothing ultra-dramatic here (even if the rocky relationship has its share of dramatic high points); just the purely cinematic rendering of the shape of peoples’ lives. That’s good moviemaking, and Kaplan has some good movies ahead of him.
The drag racing itself takes a back seat to the human story, and that’s appropriate, but it does lend a flavorful background to the proceedings – I doubt if many of us have any knowledge of the sport outside of those great radio ads for SIR racetrack (it’s always “64 Funny Cars!!” – somehow it’s impossible to race just 32 or jump to 128; 64 has some kind of symbolic, almost religious meaning for devotees of drag racing). Those ads probably account for the first pubic awareness of Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, as she was always known, dueling head-to-head in grudge matches with “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.
That “Cha Cha” moniker is one of the ways in which the world seems to want to define and categorize Shirley Muldowney; she’s made to feel a Wife, Mother, Lover without being allowed to be Shirley Muldowney. The emergence of Shirley is the story of the film – and her desire to be many things at once, without being classified as any one commodity, is echoed in the film itself, which has proved hard to define (and to advertise). A love story, a woman’s film, a sports film – it wants to be all those things; like Shirley, it resists pigeonholing. The very qualities that make Shirley Muldowney and Heart Like a Wheel honest and uncompromising also make them something of a tough sell. That – for moviewatchers, if not for promoters – is refreshing.
Bonnie Bedelia and Beau Bridges – even the alliteration of the names suggests B-movie, small-scale professionalism – play Muldowney and Kalitta, and they are wonderful to watch. Sometimes you see movies in which two characters are supposed to be in love, and one or the other or both is less than completely sympathetic, and you think: What does she/he possibly see in him/her? The Muldowney/Kalitta relationship is hardly a bed of roses, but Bedelia and Bridges display that screen intangible known as chemistry, and they are never less than believable.
That both actors are Hollywood misfits seems to mysteriously enhance their chemistry, in the way that meta-cinematic facts sometimes do; Bedelia dropped out of acting for a few years to pursue a more normal life in the domestic arena, and Bridges’ career has been somewhat eclipsed by his brother Jeff’s – Beau has seemed more interested in working in small, socially-conscious movies that barely get released than in building a standard Hollywood career. I can’t spell out exactly why this matters, except to say that somehow it gets on screen, whether it’s in Bedelia’s driven toughness as Muldowney or Bridges’ self-assured rambunctiousness as Kalitta. Kaplan supplies the finely-tuned chassis for the film, but it’s Bedelia and Bridges who put the heart in Heart Like a Wheel.
First published in The Informer, August 1983
The movie’s release was engineered in Seattle, and it turned into a sleeper with strong reviews. It picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, but Bedelia and Bridges were certainly worthy. Also in the cast: Leo Rossi, Anthony Edwards, Hoyt Axton, Dick Miller, Robert Ridgely; Bill McKinney played Garlits.