I’m not one of those people who go in for the whole serious, ride-in-packs and wearing Spandex bicycle thing, but I’m impressed by their perseverance (as well as courage in the face of how ridiculous nine out of 10 look in Spandex). That being said, bicycling hasn’t been a prolific genre for Hollywood, but there are some seriously nice films that have the sport at their center. I previously reviewed a little-remembered one (“American Flyers” – click here for my review) and today I’ll take a look at “Breaking Away.” It’s a true coming-of-age tale, but at least bicycling is so prominent that it’s considered a classic in the genre (click here for the “Active” Top 10 bicycling films). The actors were all young in 1979 and you’ll recognize many and their later works.
(1979; 101 minutes; rated PG; directed by Peter Yates and starring Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern)
A FANTASY SPOILED, BUT A LIFE ENRICHED
Four-time Oscar nominee Peter Yates got his first two for directing and best picture for the coming-of-age minor classic “Breaking Away.” It’s told through the eyes of a naïve young man who has visions of the sweeping vistas brought on by his love of bicycle racing and dreams of riding with the pro-bike stars, but is grounded in his blue-collar, anti-college roots in a small Indiana town.
It’s a wonderful story by a wonderful storyteller through cinema. Yates directed the Steve McQueen cop-classic “Bullitt” as well as another nice crime drama “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” before “Breaking Away.” Thank goodness Yates had a wonderfully light touch in “Breaking Away” and a delightful script from frequent collaborator Steve Tesich, who would win an Oscar for his “Breaking Away” screenplay. Oh, don’t forget that Yates directed Robert Redford in the crime-comedy caper film “The Hot Rock” (click here for my review).
“Breaking Away” was nominated for a total of five Oscars with the one win. Yates had two, actor Barbara Barrie got one for supporting actress and Patrick Williams got one for his music in the film.
For those who missed it, “Breaking Away” is the story of a group of young men who are coming of age but their future is bleak. They either don’t want to mingle with the, as they see it, hoity-toity college kids who come to Indiana University in their town or believe they’re condemned to be stuck in an adult quagmire of working at a drudge job and a drudge life.
The boys’ personalities range from the ex-jock who’s a bit too content with a few high school memories to the bicycle-riding dreamer who wants to break away and see and do great things. FYI, from my limited knowledge and probably incorrect description, a break-away in bicycle racing is when a leader speeds up in an attempt to “break away” from a pack of riders or an opponent.
So in “Breaking Away” we have the boys plowing ahead in their lives and the bicycle fanatic, Dennis Christopher as “Dave Stoller,” loves the Italian bicycle racing team so much that he pretends to be Italian. Of course he meets a girl at the college and the fun begins. The other guys are treading water but always with a chip on their shoulders (especially Dennis Quaid as ex-jock “Mike”) about the college students.
Although the film spins out predictably and stereotypically – Christopher realizes his dream of meeting the Italian racing team; the dream is shattered by the ignominious encounter; they all fall into despair (except for one, who’ getting married); and then comes the bicycle race in which they (especially Christopher) triumph – its sheer quality of directing, writing and acting make sure its sterling attributes shine.
Further, it’s the relationship been Christopher and his father that quietly guides the film and helps bring it to a satisfying conclusion (along with a big surprise for Christopher’s mother and father – another stereotype you’ll see coming but done with verve by Yates and Tesich).
Here’s a rundown of the main cast members:
- Christopher is at this best here as the emotionally dizzying post-adolescent whose self-esteem is tied to his bicycle riding (for gosh’s sake, he trains on the interstate highway following 18-wheelers – it was the 55mph speed limit, remember?). I’m surprised that he only earned a Golden Globe nomination for this one and he was also in “Fade to Black” and had a nice small part in “Chariots of Fire.” He was also in the little-remembered but nice “California Dreaming” from the same year as “Breaking Away” and was recently in “Django Unchained.”
- Quaid is at his youthful quarrelsome best here and knows how to put on a show with this character. You won’t be disappointed in any aspect of his work on this film and he’s also been in “Innerspace” (click here for my review), “The Long Riders” (click here for my review) and is most recognized as “Gordo Cooper” in “The Right Stuff.” He also did a nice turn as a detective in the steamy “The Big Easy” with Ellen Barkin (click here for my review).
- Daniel Stern is in his first movie here (his first credit in either film or TV) and is solid as the somewhat dense “Cyril.” It’s a small part and Stern executes it well for an actor in his first big screen appearance. He would go on to much bigger fame as the hapless crook alongside Joe Pesci in “Home Alone” and its sequel and was also in the cult classic “Diner” as “City Slickers” with Billy Crystal.
- He would go on to be nominated for an Oscar for his creepy, sick perv role in “Little Children,” but Jackie Earle Haley will always be remembered as “Kelly Leak” from the original “Bad News Bears” and two of its sequels. He plays “Moocher” here (as he would in the TV series based on the movie) and, like Stern, is solid. He was the only teenager of the principal cast (the other “boys” were all actors in their 20s). Haley is a very underrated actor that the insipid “Little Children” (yes, Kate Winslet has sex on a washing machine in it – or is it a dryer?) brought to the fore.
- Barbara Barrie certainly earned her Oscar nomination here as “Evelyn Stoller” with a low-key, sublime effort that can only be called excellent. Barrie plays a mother not only trying to balance father and son but also winds up being hit with the mid-life news that she’s pregnant. Barrie was also on TV’s “Barney Miller.”
Finally, come to Paul Dooley as “Ray Stoller.” He owns a used car lot and is confused about his son. However, just when you think you’ve got him pegged … he turns up with an unexpected emotion. Dooley has a wonderful scene with Christopher in their best father-son moment while strolling the college campus and Christopher tells him he’ll be going to college in the fall. Dooley also does his own “break away” by going to the big race at the end and leaving his car lot. Dooley was also the dad in “Sixteen Candles” and actually tried in “O.C. and Stiggs,” which is one of the 10 worst films made 40 years.
“Breaking Away” was nowhere near the top 10 films of 1979 and it made $20 million at the box office on its $2.3 million budget, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film was savagely overrated “Kramer vs. Kramer” (five Oscars for this sludge?) with $106.2 million. The only really good ACTUAL motion picture that year in the Top 10 in my opinion was “Alien” at No. 6 with $80.9 million. Other great films that year include “The Electric Horseman” with Robert Redford (click here for my review), Bob Fosse’s outstanding “All That Jazz” (click here for my review) and let’s not forget the comedy semi-classic “Meatballs” with Bill Murray (click here for my review).
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- Christopher and Dooley reunited in an episode of TV’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” It was nice to see them working together again.
- Robyn Douglass plays “Katherine” and she’s the love interest of Christopher. She’s solid here, but it isn’t a breakout role. Douglass was in “Partners” in 1982 and had only 18 roles in a somewhat brief career of 15 years in Hollywood.
- Hart Bochner can be found here as “Rod” in yet another bad fraternity guy role. Bochner is very good at this kind of character, especially as evidenced by “Terror Train” with Jamie Lee Curtis (click here for my review). Also, he was the cocaine-snorting executive killed in “Die Hard.” Bochner is another underrated actor.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The term ‘Cutters’ heard in the film is used to represent Bloomington, Indiana townies who work cutting rock in the local limestone quarries. The production team decided to call the Bloomington townies ‘cutters’ because they felt the actual local nickname (‘stoners’ or ‘stonies’) would draw a parallel to drug references for viewers who were not raised in the area.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The name of the bicycle race was ‘The Little 500’. According to Indiana University’s Office of Communications and Marketing, the Little 500 bicycle race began in 1951 as a fund-raiser for scholarship money for working students. The race was created by the late Howard S. ‘Howdy’ Wilcox (Howard S. Wilcox), who patterned it after the Indianapolis 500, which his father had won in 1919. He was inspired by a bicycle race he saw involving students racing around a dormitory, with several women leaning out of windows and cheering them on.”
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