Breaking Away (Blu-ray Review)2 Feb, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Barbara Barrie, Paul Dooley.
Somehow, in the wake of genuine auteurist achievements like the ignored quartet of Manhattan, Alien, “10” and The Black Stallion, this minor pleasantry about competitive bicycling managed to secure a best picture Oscar nomination. Well, not exactly “somehow” because moviegoers were still caught up in the underdog euphoria (though all of my Stallone-resistant movie friends were saying “hangover”) of Rocky. In any event, Breaking Away came out of nowhere to become the sleeper of a good movie year, and it’s still a passable time-killer, though even the Twilight Time imprimatur can’t do much about the runny 20th Century Fox DeLuxe Color of the era.
A slight modification here: This movie kind of came out of nowhere because the Fox marketing department, which also did a stellar job with Norma Rae that year, really pushed this one with velvet gloves. I was at the studio’s ’79 press junket in Chicago for June release Alien, and Fox blocked off Friday night for a previously unannounced stealth screening of its coming July comedy — one that had something less than a star cast and a director (Peter Yates) who, my love for Bullitt or not, was no personal favorite. So I bailed on the screening for a night of reading in my hotel room, which turned out to be a really stupid move because a month later, the picture really caught on with almost everyone, especially in the Midwest.
These last credentials were well earned because Breaking was shot — apparently in full — on and around Indiana University’s campus in Bloomington, where screenwriter Steve Tesich (Oscared here) had gone to school by way of his birthplace in the former Yugoslavia. And given that writing instructors always tell you to write about what you know, this is a case where any auteurism here seems to come from the writer’s desk because Tesich had not only gone to IU but also had ridden competitively. So he knew something of what he spoke.
Reminding me a little of a Bobby Rydell who’s traded in the Brylcreem for what used to be called the dry look, Dennis Christopher plays the story’s key “cutter” — a term used (sometimes in derogative fashion) to describe the townies who, by an large, aren’t part of the campus’s frat/sorority universe. Old enough for college but disinclined to go, Christopher is going through an Italian cyclist phase so pronounced that he’s been shaving his legs to facilitate (one would guess) his pedal work in Italian fashion, which is not the kind of habit any bedrock Midwest father is likely to embrace. Christopher’s father is played by Paul Dooley in perhaps his best-known role as one of the more depressing used car dealers (the customer cheating he does brings him no joy) ever served up on screen. Dooley got a lot of critical praise at the time, but what Tesich gave him was smack in the actor’s wheelhouse, and if anything, I prefer Oscar-nominated Barbara Barrie as Christopher’s mother because we’re never quite sure where she’s going to go with the part. Barrie’s becomes an idiosyncratic performance after she, like her son, becomes enamored of everything on the dreamy side of old-school Italian, almost to the point of swooning. Watching her at times, it’s almost as if June Cleaver has gone a little flower-child-ish.
Also around, as fellow cutters, are a jarringly young Dennis Quaid as a former high school quarterback now looking at life’s downward slope — as well as a pre-Diner Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley (a long way away from The Day of the Locust and certainly Little Children). All have to live with a built-in local class structure where the cool women and good cars (especially if they buy them from Dooley) will never be theirs — though Christopher gives it a shot when he temporarily convinces a comely frat type (Robyn Douglass) that he’s an Italian exchange student. There are enough loopy moments here to argue against anyone calling these affable hundred minutes conventional, but this is not a movie to stand the test of time as a best picture nominee. On the other hand, the National Society of Film Critics picked Breaking as the year’s best movie, and the New York Film Critics Circle placed it second. Maybe this is what Jimmy Carter was talking about when he lamented the country’s “malaise.”