Heart Like a Wheel

October 21, 2021

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.

Personal Best

September 23, 2021

I consider myself lucky. A couple of months back, I pretty much just happened to show up at the Guild 45th one night for a sneak preview of a movie that, judging by the newspaper advertisement, featured Mariel Hemingway in a running outfit. That was all I knew. I think it’s a great way to experience any movie – just off the street like that, without preconceptions or expectations. I’m saying this because I think that by the time this movie – Personal Best – opens (which, I understand, will be before this newsletter appears), it will probably be impossible not to pretty much know its subject matter. So I must tell you that watching Personal Best that first time, as it sidled up to its broach its delicate subject, was rather exciting. It’s not a lesser movie if you know what’s going to happen, but you lose just that shading of the movie-watching experience. If you don’t know about Personal Best, don’t read any more anywhere – just go!

Okay. Personal Best, directed, written, and produced by Robert Towne, has a plot structure that doesn’t seem to unusual – two athletes fall into an intimate relationship that is strained when they wind up competing against each other. This time around, they both happen to be women, and I suppose that’s why Personal Best may be controversial. But anyone who stays away from this one is going to be missing a very special film. Towne, in his first directorial effort, has imbued the film with a depth of character and a richness of atmosphere that ring remarkably true down to the last detail.

Early on, we see a TV commercial for Clairol with the ad line: “This I do for me.” And indeed, it’s a movie about personal growth and self-discovery that generously acknowledges how much other people matter on the bumpy road to physical and emotional maturity. Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) is a naturally gifted, ill-trained hurdler; her odyssey toward her “personal best” is shaped by her overbearing parents, a deceptively tough-talking coach (Scott Glenn), her supportive, funkily-sketched track-and-field teammates, a Gold Medal-winning water polo player (Kenny Moore), and particularly her roomie, the more experienced – but equally vulnerable – Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly). It’s a movie full of people needing people. Towne seems to believe that a personal best is far more important than beating others in competition; at the same time, even a significant personal best – something that one must draw from within – would be nearly impossible (and probably worthless) without the stimulating contributions of others.

What makes Personal Best so exhilarating and memorable is Towne’s uncanny knack for creating authentically live-in spaces and scenes. A summer night sprawled in front of the tube with a few empty brews around becomes absolutely the right prelude for a first kiss. A party that throbs with pop music and petty jealousies is so on-target it’ll have you checking to see if you recognize anybody there. Some of Towne’s success in establishing the almost palpable atmosphere lies in the selection of popular songs (they really root the movie in the period from ’76 to about ’80) that almost – but never really obviously – provide a commentary on the main relationship: “You Make Lovin’ Fun,” “What a Fool Believes,” “It’s Over.” But more than that, the performances of his actors reveal a direction Towne seems interested in; Hemingway, Glenn, and Moore don’t really seem to be engaging in any kind of acting we’ve seen before, speaking their lines as though every word was a bit of a surprise. And from an Olympic-class hurdler named Patrice Donnelly, Towne gets a performance of such astonishing spiritual beauty that it’s hard to believe Personal Best wouldn’t be a completely different movie without her. (It’s probably unfair to comment on a sneak preview that doesn’t pretend to be a final cut, but one of Donnelly’s best scenes, a breathtaking emotional breakdown towards the end of the film, has been cut from the final release version.)

All the athletes are seen preparing for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the knowledge that the USA didn’t send a team that year hangs over Personal Best like the Pearl Harbor of From Here to Eternity. But it isn’t used in a terribly ironic way; instead, that historic fact reinforces the film’s most deeply-felt belief about the importance of individual achievement. At the last track meet for the would-be Medal winners, a sportscaster glumly describes the qualifying athletes as “all dressed up … and no place to go.” It is testimony to the emotional power and enchanting rhythms of Personal Best that we immediately realize just how very wrong that pronouncement is.

First published The Informer, March 1982

This is a youthful piece of writing, by someone at loose ends in the immediate aftermath of college, weirdly moved by nostalgia for my college years (76 to 80, the film’s exactly time span). You should have things to champion at that moment, and this was one of mine. Still, no apologies for loving the movie. I have a memory that Towne was at the Guild 45th preview (the Guild is a venerable Seattle arthouse), and that Warren Beatty was also there. Donnelly competed in the 1976 Olympics; here she gives the performance of the year. She did a few more acting jobs, including American Anthem, and served as an advisor on Without Limits, Towne’s movie about the runner Steve Prefontaine.

Stealing Home

June 30, 2021

Take some threads from The Big Chill, weave in plenty of thirtysomething, and throw in a bit of Bull Durham – you have the design for Stealing Home. This is a movie that, in an evidently sincere way, touches a lot of the familiar bases of the baby boom generation. While it is sincere, it’s only intermittently successful.

It’s one of those convoluted flashback movies in which we’re brought up to date on the main character’s situation with a string of lengthy looks-back. The protagonist, a washed-up minor-league baseball payer (Mark Harmon), has been living an existence of despondency for some time when he learns that an old friend has died, and that she has willed him her ashes.

As he returns to his hometown, the flashbacks fill us in on his history. The woman was his former babysitter (Jodie Foster), who introduced him to a certain wildness and sense of fun. She was a free spirit who had a lot to do with him pursuing a baseball career in his teens, after the shock of his father’s death.

It follows that reliving these old memories, and making a few new ones in the present tense, helps him get his life back on track. (It also helps him figure out what to do with her ashes.)

Stealing Home is written and directed by Steven Kampmann and Will Aldis, who get a lot of mileage out of old songs (they make all the obvious choices), fashions, and adolescent buddy humor.

The best section of the movie involves an extended flashback to the summer in which our hero (played as a teenager by William McNamara) and his pal (Jonathan Silverman) hang out at the beach and dream of babes and baseball, with particular attention to a red-headed “goddess” to whom the pal will (happily) surrender his virginity.

The other parts of the movie have problems. Harmon, for one thing, doesn’t exactly radiate the burned-out hopelessness that his character is supposed to embody; he’s not a deep enough actor at this point, and the strain dulls his usual likability.

The fundamental difficulty, however, is that we never quite see what Foster gives him, or how she has influenced his life in such a profound way. Or why he would ever dissolve into such self-destruction.

What Stealing Home does have is a few isolated goodies, such as the adolescent sexual initiation that is interrupted by an oblivious parent, and an adult scene in which Harmon and his now-grown pal (Harold Ramis) get drunk and sneak into a baseball stadium at night. These are nice elements that a good director might have brought home, but this film leaves them stranded at third.

First published in The Herald, August 1988

One of those “dispose of the remains” movies, eh? I’d forgotten that detail. The cast also includes Blair Brown, Richard Jenkins, and Helen Hunt. Co-director Aldis, who died in 2019, was also known as Will Porter; he and Kampmann also wrote, under pseudonyms, the notorious Clifford, with Martin Short as a 10-year-old.


May 20, 2021

Hoosiers has its factual roots in a heroic basketball season. Tiny Milan High School won the 1954 Indiana basketball championship against incredible odds, capturing the imagination of roundball fans everywhere.

It’s one of those marvelous miracles that sometimes happen in sports, and it’s a natural story for a movie. Who better to give it filmic (and fictionalized) life than a pair of native Indianans: screenwriter Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh. Perhaps they can best understand the hysteria with which Hoosiers assess their favorite sport.

In fact, that’s what Hoosiers does best. The feeling of a heavy autumn descending over a small town, and of a populace fiercely devoted to the only game around, is colorfully painted. It’s the sort of place where a school minister’s invocation is, “Lord, bless these boys and the season before them.” There may actually be too many shots of corn waving in the wind and pumpkins ripening.

The bucolic setting is invaded by an outsider: a new coach (Gene Hackman, exemplary as usual), brought in as a favor to the principal of Hickory High. Hackman’s a former big-college coach, who left the game years before in a player-slapping incident. This is his final shot at basketball.

He’s as ripe for redemption as the pumpkins are for carving. And he’s not the only one: There’s also a former local star, now a grown-up town drunk (Dennis Hopper). Hackman, determined to drag this souse into glory with him, makes Hopper the assistant coach on the team.

This is the role for which Dennis Hopper is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and no wonder. Even his first scene, a continuous take as he stumbles into a diner, begs change, and is hustled out by his embarrassed son, has Academy Award nomination written all over it. Which is not to denigrate Hopper’s performance; he’s fine, and in a long tradition of Oscar-nominated drunks.

The season begins with a wobble, and the townsfolk want Hackman to pack his bags. But he wins over the participation of the school phenomenon (Maris Valainis), a boy with a deadly jump shot, who hasn’t played since the previous coach died. With this kid on board, the team is off and running.

At which point, better than halfway through, Hoosiers becomes a much less interesting movie. As the victories get more last-second and heart-stopping, the film becomes more mechanical.

The well-observed business of the town and its people falls away, and the victories take center stage. Barbara Hershey, who plays Hackman’s love interest, all but disappears in the last part of the movie.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with corn as high as an elephant’s you-know-what, but Hoosiers gets to be too insistent about it. If there is a short guy on the team who usually acts as waterboy, you can bet he’ll be called upon to make two free-throws in the final moments of a crucial game. And it’s sure that a dried-out Hopper will guide the team to a win when Hackman is tossed from a game.

Hoosiers is still enjoyable – and I look forward to more films from David Anspaugh, who has a nice touch (he’s directed a lot of episodes of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere on television). But this film fades quickly from memory, and, for all its last-gasp histrionics, doesn’t match the drama of a truly historic sports event.

First published in The Herald, February 1987

Audiences, you know, disagreed with me. Apparently this is one of those beloved movies that was a drag to make; IMDb says that Hackman was a bummer on the set. Of no interest to anyone but me: changing the text here, I’ve put back the capitalization of Best Supporting Actor. At one point in my years at the Herald, an editor told me that I shouldn’t capitalize the categories for the Oscar nominations, and I didn’t, for years. Never knew why. AP Style book? Seemed odd at the time, seems odd now. Anyway, I’m capitalizing them.


May 18, 2021

Hotshot is pretty obviously an excuse to provide work for soccer great Pele, by stringing together some rah-rah soccer sequences and a few nice shots of Brazil. As such, it’s predictable and formulaic, but pretty palatable for all that.

Pele, the retired greatest soccer player ever, plays the retired greatest soccer player ever. Listen, until he’s up to A Long Day’s Journey into Night, why not? This character is living alone in a secluded house on the coast of Brazil, but his quiet life is interrupted by a brash young American (Jim Youngs) who seeks the wisdom of the master.

We find out in flashback that Youngs has just made a professional New York team, only to be suspended for two months because of personality problems. Translation: He’s a jerk, and the coach and his teammates are tired of him.

Youngs asks Pele for help. But the great one has sworn off soccer, forever. This lack of interest, of course, has simply been added by a screenwriter to add “conflict.” Before long, Pele is flashbacking to his glory days, where we see classic shots of Pele – oops, I mean his character, heh heh – making magic with the round ball. Naturally, at the end of the two months’ training, Youngs has matured and is ready to return to New York in full bloom.

Some of the plot conceits here are classic. Make that ancient: Youngs’ parents are rich so he must deny them and make it on his own; his best buddy on the team is paralyzed on the field and inspires a Gipperesque finale; and another teammate is closing out a brilliant career.

There’s no doubt about where any of this is going, but somehow director Rick King and his cast make it all reasonably easy to take. Youngs, who resembles a younger, less tortured Christopher Walken, is an acceptable screen presence, and Pele has no problems.

Most of his acting involves bouncing a ball off his feet or head, and this he does very well. He also gets to re-create one of his most famous shots: the flip-over-and-kick-the-ball-into-the-goal-while-you’re-on-your-back-in-midair shot. Darned if it isn’t still impressive, even allowing for rehearsals and retakes.

First published in The Herald, January 1987

Director King also made Prayer for the Rollerboys and did the original story for Point Break. Jim Youngs is the younger brother of John Savage; he’d been in The Wanderers and Footloose, and of course a key role in the immortal Out of Control. The cast includes Penelope Ann Miller in her first bigscreen part, Rutanya Alda, and Mario Van Peebles.

On the Edge

March 1, 2021

Every year diehard runners converge on Marin County, California, to run in a punishing footrace that travels up and down Mount Tamalpais and ends near the ocean. It’s called the Dipsea, and writer-director Rob Nilsson (Northern Lights) has been fascinated by the grueling event since childhood, when he was raised in the area.

Nilsson has finally made a movie, On the Edge, that celebrates the race. It also peers into the mania that running becomes for so many people, and into the exploitation of such on tests by athletic manufacturers and the sports media (the film’s release coincides with recent charges of commercialization at the Boston Marathon, the only continuing American race that predates the Dipsea).

But primarily, On the Edge is a tale of individual redemption, at its most successful when dealing with this human story. It’s an old story, and there’s a hint of The Natural here, about the aging ex-hotshot making one last comeback.

Wes Holman (Bruce Dern) was a young running star in the early ’60s, but he got himself banned from the sport by admitting that he cashed in airplane tickets (provided by race promoters) to pay for regular living expenses. The film suggests that this was common practice in those days, when amateur athletes didn’t have the money-making opportunities they have now.

So Holman vanished for 20 years, coaching track at small schools. Now, at the age of 44, he’s returned to Marin County to train for the race (called Cielo-Sea in the film), a process for which he has allotted a whole year.

He hooks up with his old coach (John Marley), who agrees to train him, and for a year Holman does nothing but live in a waterfront shack and run up and down that mountain. The big race itself, in which Holman is not even officially entered because of his past troubles, occupies the final half-hour of the film.

Nilsson’s script and direction are earnest, although he doesn’t come up with too many surprises for us. I think he does a disservice to the film by emphasizing the prettified sunsets and the syrupy music, which hammers the lead character’s triumph into our heads. (Then again, credit him for making such a good-looking independent film on a low budget.)

There are many real runners in the movie, some playing themselves, such as Marty Liquori. Non-actor Bill Bailey, who was such a memorable presence in Seeing Red, the documentary about American communism, does quite well in his first dramatic role as Holman’s estranged father.

Naturally, the weight of the film rests with Dern. Have you ever seen him on a talk show when he starts talking about running? The man is truly obsessed – he says he’s run more than 1000,000 miles in the last 25 years – and that dedication does come through in the movie.

Of course, Dern is Dern, an actor who sometimes makes me feel creepier when he’s playing a good guy than when he plays one of his psychos (the beard he wears in this film makes him look like the mad old man of the mountain). Give him this much: In On the Edge, even when the movie overstates its case, Dern’s half-heroic, half-obsessive performance is undeniably effective.

First published in The Herald, May 1986

One of the early films by a prolific indie director. Dern was dialed in on this one, and I do remember the wild-eyed Old Testament vibe he would bring to talking about running. I didn’t mention Pam Grier in this review, but apparently there’s a cut of the movie with more of her in it.

Everybody’s All-American

February 3, 2021

Is there more to life than scoring touchdowns? That’s the question for Gavin Grey, the hero of Everybody’s All-American, who has scored more than his share. First for a national championship college team in 1956, then through a successful pro career, Gavin Grey has put the points on the board. “The Grey Ghost,” they call him.

The movie charts not only Gavin’s heady successes, but also the aftermath, the second act of this American life. Based on a novel by sportswriter Frank Deford (Tom Rickman adapted the script), Everybody’s All-American taps into some big-time dreams and middle-class realities, as it surveys 25 years in the lives of three people.

The three are Grey (played by Dennis Quaid), the adored athlete for a Louisiana university who can’t deal with life after the pigskin, when his options narrow to being a golf pro or a pitchman for Astroturf; his wife Babs (Jessica Lange), everybody’s prom queen, resigned to procreating and being a “player’s wife”; and Gavin’s nephew Donnie (Timothy Hutton), who has worshipped Babs for most of his adult life.

Because these three are well-acted and the film’s milieu, the South during the Civil Rights movement, is intriguing, the film is always watchable. It doesn’t delve into its issues with any real depth, but it certainly provides an entertaining surface. Director Taylor Hackford proved in An Officer and a Gentleman that he could summon a certain kind of old-fashioned movie chemistry, and he’s up to much the same thing here.

As the movie weighs in at better than two hours in length, Hackford has time to build some strong detail into the story. The nephew’s crush on Babs is neatly drawn: When Gavin, the big man on campus, first asks him to sit with Babs in the stands, freshman Donnie gasps, “Me? Sit with Babs Rogers?” (a line delivered with all the dewiness Timothy Hutton can muster, which is plenty wet). Some years later, Babs and Donnie take a thrilling skinny-dip at a picnic, and years after that, they finally consummate their friendship.

Hackford has always been good at getting these sorts of things right, and his job is made easier by the fact that gravel-voiced Quaid and creampuffy Lange make such a convincingly down-home pair. And they all pull off a solid tearjerker of an ending.

First published in The Herald, November 1988

Might have lost a paragraph or two in the editing process here. I didn’t mention John Goodman at all; the cast also includes Carl Lumbly and Patricia Clarkson. I sound generally positive here, although my memory of the movie is of a blah middlebrow effort with a few authentic moments scattered around (evidently the skinny-dipping scene was one of those). It flopped, anyway. At this time Deford was the thinking man’s sportswriter, and a genteel sort, as I discovered when I interviewed him once. I interviewed Hackford, too, for another film (it must’ve been Ray); an engaging person, with some nice pictures along the way and a few amazingly unmitigated stinkers.