Friday, July 14

Good 70s Films: Breaking Away

1979 Comedy Drama
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Peter Yates

Dennis Christopher
Dennis Quaid
Jackie Earle Haley
Daniel Stern
Barbara Barrie
Paul Dooley
Robin Douglass
Hart Bochner

I don't think I've ever known or even heard of anyone who didn't like this movie.   At the time of its release it seemed to me that it was widely chatted up as being the flick to go see.  Here it was at the end of the 70s, a decade full of some pretty heavy stuff, and we are served up a movie swathed in light-hearted feel-good and it was seemingly embraced by all.  

Certainly it is a coming-of-age movie, one of the more beloved genres that I always seem to be drawn to.  I suppose I related to it as strongly as I did because it deals with a small, midwestern town with a big university. More specifically it highlights the rivalry between the big-headed college dudes and four local boys, Dave, Mike, Cyril and Moocher, whom the snobby students consider country-bumpkins.

Steve Tesich won a well-deserved Oscar for his original screenplay, full of sparkling dialogue and many a giggle, of four working-class friends living in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana. They've been out of high school for a year and there's nothing to indicate they won't make bumming around their life's work.  For sure no one appears like he will make the leap to go to Indiana U nor do they seem to have anything else in mind beyond goofing off and swimming at the local quarry.

Tesich, who went to the college, points out the snobbery of the affluent college guys and the jealousy of the locals.  In this case the locals are referred to as cutters, a derogatory expression involving the Indiana limestone industry and the stonecutters who worked the quarries. The fathers of the boys were all stonecutters.  Obviously Tesich himself wasn't a cutter and it is duly noted how warm he is toward their point of view.

Dennis Christopher plays Dave who has become obsessed with everything Italian stemming from his acquiring a Masi racing bike and being all damp over the Italian racing team that will be coming to his town. He assumes an Italian name, speaks English with a choppy Italian accent, plays Italian operatic music loudly throughout the house and poorly sings arias, and, much to his father's chagrin, has renamed Jake, the family cat, Fellini, which he feeds out of a Cinzano ashtray.

Dave's used car salesman father (Paul Dooley) is sick and tired of his son's obsession with everything, as he calls it, Idy. The teen's mother (Barbara Barrie) is supportive of anything her son does or doesn't do.  She coaxes her husband to try to be more understanding.  She is likely happy that her son is fixated on anything at all.  When she cooks the father zucchini, he makes a face and says he doesn't want to eat any idy foods... zucchini, linguine, fettuccine.  Dad is exasperated hearing buongiorno, bellissima or ciao, Papa, all the time.  What has happened to his son?  Dave's idiosyncrasies only seem to make him dearer to audiences.

Mike (Dennis Quaid) was the high school quarterback who lived in glory during the golden days but hasn't done anything since. His cop-brother threatens to run him in if he doesn't shape up and do something with his life.  Mike is clearly the most jealous of the college crowd and laments that he will just keep getting older while they continue to stay 19.  

Cyril (Daniel Stern) thrives on being a failure, unabashedly offering his dad counts on it. He is the type who will never make good and will live in the town, under the shadow of the elite college dudes, forever. I thought the plan was to waste the rest of our lives together, he muses.

Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) calls his friends on their obnoxiousness but comes to the forefront on that one himself when someone calls him Shorty.  When he finally manages to get a job, his new boss says and don't forget to punch the time clock, Shorty, and that is exactly what he does. Punches it good, too. 

Dave falls for a pretty college student, Katherine, who would normally be out of his league.  However, after he calls her Katerina and says everything in his comical Italian accent and serenades her beneath her balcony, she falls for him.  Most annoyed by these happenings is her college-jock boyfriend Rod (Hart Bochner) who plans to wreak whatever havoc he can.

Cyril accompanies Dave's serenade on his guitar and gets beaten up by Rod and his pals for his effort.  Mike then seeks revenge although the truth is he's just waiting for any opportunity.  It is perfect that Bochner was so damned good-looking and Quaid nearly matches him.  (Actually, there's one scene in which Quaid gets a closeup and I swear I've never seen him look so handsome.) Tesich's writing was on the mark to make the best-looking guys in each camp do all that posturing and snorting to become the primary enemies.  

As a result there is a brawl which lands the students before the university president (the actual one at the time) who decides he will invite the cutters to take part in the annual university bike race while his students seethe with disgust.

Dave is excited because of that visiting Italian team but his joy soon evaporates when one of the Italian cyclists causes Dave to have an accident.  The cutters, of course, end up winning the race (it's Dave and Rod spiriting toward the finish line).  Dave, however, disenchanted with his treatment by the Italians, confesses his charade to Katherine who slaps him and stomps off.

Dave's father is happy to have his son back and attending Indiana U.  But then Dave meets a French girl at school and begins chatting up the Tour de France and speaking with a decided French accent. The film ends as the father cannot believe his string of bad luck.

All the young actors were new or fairly new to films in 1979 and all were very good.  It seemed to me that there would be some important careers awaiting most of them but it didn't happen for anyone other than Quaid who went on to play.... well, Quaid.  I've always wondered why Bochner (with that face!) didn't make it big.

I thought Barrie and particularly Dooley were fantastic as Dave's very different parents. She received an Oscar nomination and it just seems so wrong that he didn't.

Tesich was born in Yugosalvia but moved to Bloomington when he was 13.  His script is coherent, touching and very funny and yet not overbearing or preachy.  Of course, above all, it is a wonderfully evocative piece of nostalgia.  The British Yates may have had a spotty directorial career but this is certainly one of his very best.  

It was, by the way, filmed on location in Bloomington, Indiana, and at the university. It certainly provided an authentic feel to the proceedings.

Regular readers may know I like to bring The American Film Institute into things when driving a point home so know that it honored Breaking Away as number eight on its list of the 100 most inspiring movies.  If you've never seen it, treat yourself.  If it's been awhile for you, see it again.

Here, take a look at all I've said in a clip:

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He was so super, man

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