Although he was an award-winning student filmmaker before coming to Los Angeles, Jonathan Kaplan became one of Roger Corman's best but least-known protégé directors. He followed up slum duty in pictures like Student Nurses with the excellent Over the Edge, which is still the best movie about the neglect of children in suburbia. Kaplan's White Line Fever showed a terrific talent for action filmmaking. His mainstream Heart Like a Wheel was a hit in 1983, sort of a Coal Miner's Daughter country-girl bio, except that the subject country girl is Shirley Muldowney, the champion drag racer who broke the gender barrier in big-time NHRA drag racing.
Heart Like a Wheel accomplishes the impressive feat of making drag racing interesting for audiences that normally couldn't care less. Joan McCall's script (with Ken Friedman and David E. Peckinpah) keeps us keenly interested in the fate of Shirley Muldowney, who simply cannot be made to wash dishes and wait tables. Unlike her talented mechanic husband, Shirley doesn't outgrow her interest in racing. She's a pro from the start, working to overcome the chauvinistic prejudices of a male-dominated sport.
The real Shirley Muldowney was a consultant on the movie and top names like Tommy Ivo served as tech advisors, so the car and racing angle of the film is well covered. There's plenty of racing in the movie but we never get bogged down in the repetition that dulls most films of this kind. The emphasis is on Shirley's journey. She gets the racing bug, struggles against the limited thinking and jealousy of her husband, and deals with the disdainful boys at the track, Then Shirley does her best to take Connie Kalitta's help without succumbing to his romantic abuse.
Unlike other "woman career" stories, Shirley is able to do a reasonable job of raising her son John (played at different ages by Brandon Trent Williams, Byron Thames and Anthony Edwards) even while her marriage crumbles. The exuberant Connie doesn't hide his affections, which makes things tough when Shirley's son and her relatives realize what she's doing. Shirley also has to face Connie's stay-at-home wife, which is no boost to her self-esteem.
The movie has an excellent leading couple in Bonnie Bedelia and Beau Bridges. Bedelia is one of those superb 70s/80s actresses let down by a movie industry short on decent female roles from which careers can be built. She garnered praise in The Gypsy Moths and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? but is remembered mostly for her supporting role in 1988's Die Hard. Bedelia is marvelous here, presenting a great image of a woman doing what she loves, fully willing to take responsibility for the consequences if her dreams don't work out. The movie has only one scary crash scene. Once Shirley shakes off her immediate injuries, she's ready to go again.
In 1983 Beau Bridges is still trim and able to cut a reasonably dashing figure, reminding us frequently of his father. His Connie Kalitta is an amiable enthusiast and a thoughtless womanizing heel, but none of Heart Like a Wheel's drag racing people are ordinary types. Beau's performance compares well with his brother Jeff's fine work in The Last American Hero.
Jonathan Kaplan makes the fine screenplay even better with his good taste. Shirley Muldowney puts together a love life in the best way she can and is no libertine; there are no exploitative nude scenes. Her eye is always on the racetrack and the fastest time, and although she may be vulnerable she's never a pushover. We applaud the producer's judgment as soon as we see the real Muldowney and Kalitta in the disc extras. Muldowney isn't much less beautiful than Bedelia and the real Connie Kalitta looks like the kind of car nut that a woman might love for his enthusiastic spirit. It may not be easy to convince a date to watch a movie about a female drag racer, but Heart Like a Wheel will soon win her over.
Anchor Bay's disc of Heart Like a Wheel is a solid enhanced transfer that shows off the rich cinematography of Tak Fujimoto, who started out with Terrence Malick on Badlands and became a favorite cameraman of both Kaplan and Jonathan Demme. The audio is 2.0 mono only, and on Savant's setup seemed oddly balanced between music, effects (a bit loud) and dialogue (a bit low). Jonathan Kaplan provides a rewarding audio commentary.
Director Gary Hertz's Shirley Muldowney Behind the Wheel is an informative featurette docu with Muldowney, Kalitta, Don Garlits and Tommy Ivo and aided by a lot of good NHRA video of Shirley's races. Shirley's full story is inspiring and she's a great interview subject; at the end of the 35-minute show her image is just as bright as Bonnie Bedelia's. Shirley, Garliits and Kalitta also participate in a taped discussion feature.
The disc also has a trailer, poster & still galleries and a deleted scenes menu choice. There's a longer version of the rather flat TV scene with Paul Bartel as a TV chef and more material with Dick Miller, but I didn't find the alternate ending mentioned on the package text.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Heart Like a Wheel rates:
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