Heart Like a Wheel is great B plus moviemaking striving for the A grade. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, from a script by Ken Friedman, it’s a true story about three-time Top Fuel hot rod champion Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney and told in the old fashion way. (Though not rotting like Tony Curtis’ Johnny Dark or phony fashionable as John Frankenheimer’s sleepfest Grand Prix.) In rooting for underdog Muldowney, this picture is like Melvin and Howard—with an ending you wish Melvin could have enjoyed. Best of all is that it’s not just about racing or women’s lib, it’s also about the relationships between men striving to make it and the women they love who become better at what the men are striving for. Muldowney, at least in the picture, is one woman in a man’s world men can admire—even while using her. The theme isn’t provocative or sexist, but there are some potently provocative and sexist moments that pop up. More than a little surprising is that Heart Like a Wheel works so well because there isn’t any feminist-inspired humiliation present—an otherwise easy additive to mix in. Kaplan and Friedman waste no time in establishing Muldowney’s compulsion: at the beginning we see her as a child sitting on her drunken father’s lap, behind the wheel of the car, zooming through the air. The thrill has been set. A few scenes later, now married, when Muldowney’s husband agrees to a night time race, we watch as she stands in the middle of the highway mimicking her husband’s shifting of gears. It’s in her blood but not his and he loses. In the next race, she takes over and wins. The crowd cheers and she waves to acknowledge them; it’s really a wave of goodbye—she’s “lost it” to the wheel. As Muldowney, Bonnie Bedelia’s face is missing flesh, especially in the cheeks, and with a tiny mouth she has an elongated pinched chin that tends to look mannequinish, particularly when she wears her helmet. She often looks like one of the soaps’ harpies—Robin Strasser’s Dorian on “One Life to Live.” But she doesn’t act as if she’s in soap—there’s no fishwifery. Beau Bridges as the famous racer-womanizer Connie Kalitta does what Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson haven’t—realistically worm his way into our suspicious hearts. Unshaven, a little flabby, fingernails greased to the max, Bridges revels as a puppy dog-cad: every woman knows this man and many have loved him, and every man has had a buddy like him, mayube wanting to be him. What makes this performance so beautiful is that Bridges gets us to understand why he does things without ever having to explain. (We “know” why he attempts to beat Bedelia and her son Anthony Edwards after she publicly disowns him—the only real act of feminist revenge in the picture and we understand that too). Leo Rossi, as Shirley’s ex, is like a grease monkey Kevin Kline.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.