Monday, April 7, 2014

Breaking Away (1979)

Director: Peter Yates                                        Writer: Steve Tesich
Music: Patrick Williams                                    Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Starring: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley

This is one of those little films that wound up being a real gem. Breaking Away struck a chord with audiences and critics when it was first released and its reputation has only continued to grow through the years. Now it is considered the quintessential coming of age film as four Bloomington High School graduates try to figure out what to do with their lives once school is over. But the title doesn’t simply refer to leaving home, it’s also about leaving each other. The film begins with the four friends walking down to an abandoned limestone quarry to swim. Dennis Quaid is the obvious leader, former quarterback of the high school football team and the one who has a car. Dennis Christopher is into bicycle racing. Daniel Stern is the jokester, but delivering a lot of truth in the process, and Jackie Earle Haley is the pint-sized poor kid. The primary conflict of the piece begins with the kids from the college, Illinois State University, trespassing on the swimming hole the boys think of as theirs.

The dissension between the four graduates is evident from the start. Quaid wants, literally, to do nothing and spend their time together goofing off. Haley, on the other hand, has seen enough poverty that it has no glamor for him and he’s the first to talk about getting a job. Christopher is going through an Italian phase, in love with the bicycle racers from that country and driving his father crazy in the process, while Stern apparently could live at home indefinitely with no problem. The primary focus of the film is on Dennis Christopher, as he’s the only one of the four that is seen at his home, with Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie as his parents. Dooley is the typical Midwestern father, all sternness and disapproval on the outside but a soft heart underneath, while Barrie is supportive in every way imaginable. Though the conflict with the college students, specifically Hart Bochner, is always present, it comes to the forefront when Christopher is on campus and gets Bochner’s girlfriend, Robyn Douglass, to fall for him by pretending to be Italian.

All of this leads to the distinctive finale where the four boys get to represent the town in the annual bicycle race for the college kids. Screenwriter Steve Tesich developed the idea from his time attending Illinois State, and it feels genuine. So much so that he won the Oscar that year for his original screenplay. The effect was also achieved by the decision to do most of the filming in Bloomington. Director Peter Yates began his career in television, but made his mark directing Steve McQueen in Bullitt and made some consistently good films for the rest of his career. Dennis Quaid, of course, went on to superstardom, but Dennis Christopher stalled out shortly after and he has spent most of his time in television ever since. And while Daniel Stern had something of a renaissance with Billy Crystal, Jackie Earle Haley has had a rough go of it to keep working, being the only one of the four to appear in the ill-fated television spin-off along with Barbara Barrie.

Supporting roles are uniformly excellent, with John Ashton as a policeman and Quaid’s older brother while Peter Maloney plays a doctor. Hart Bochner and Robyn Douglass were just starting out and both did well for a short while. Bochner had some memorable films after this but Douglass, who is absolutely radiant onscreen, should have been much more successful. She did some television work and a few feature films, but it’s the television movie Her Life As a Man that contains her definitive role and the place to see her potential to be a real movie star. Bad choices, and limited roles, however, ended in her leaving acting in 1993. The great Barbara Barrie was nominated for an Oscar for her heartfelt performance, as was director Yates and composer Patrick Williams. In the end, though, veteran character actor Paul Dooley nearly steals the whole show with his flawless portrayal. Breaking Away is a film that you simply have to experience to understand its greatness, a tremendous slice of life that rings so true it’s no wonder it has remained so popular.

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