Good car movie" has always been a perfect oxymoron, like "safe nuclear weapons" or "student athlete," and so, having been trapped at a succession of dreadful crash epics, I found it initially just plain disorienting to be in the interesting and rewarding company of Heart Like a Wheel. This is the biography of Shirley Muldowney, the champion drag racer, and a rather literal interpretation, at that, of the life of the pretty little girl from Schenectady who left her husband back in the grease pits of Buddy's Texaco and went on to fame and fortune, besting Don (Big Daddy) Garlits and all the other male lead-footers.
The saga of the film's distribution in many ways offers more intrigue than does the story itself. Heart Like a Wheel has been a box-office dud among its natural folk constituency, while it has earned rhapsodic raves from connoisseurs at film festivals in New York City and Toronto, critics who wouldn't know a funny car from a bumper car. Indeed, the film had to be hastily withdrawn from circulation in hinterland theaters this summer when it simply couldn't attract any audience, and only now that it is dripping the critical grease of big-city sophisticates is Heart Like a Wheel going to be wheeled through the heartland again.
Certainly it deserves to be recognized; it has all the ingredients. The acting matches the characterization at a high level. The dialogue, by Ken Friedman, is superb, and so is the gritty photography. With this directing effort, Jonathan Kaplan will springboard to the prominence he has been hinting at. It is Kaplan's nuances, unexpected little bits and pieces of perception as much as mere reality, that help make this film so special—almost too much so, perhaps, for the neat touches only highlight the movie's structural deficiencies.
Heart Like a Wheel (an absolutely meaningless title that most assuredly doesn't help move tickets; it might as well be Liver Like a Carburetor or Gall Bladder Like a Hubcap) spans a quarter of a century, and it is altogether too linear—rather like a drag race itself, which starts with a burst but then whooshes down a straightaway, finishing in a blur that you watch from behind. The same with watching Muldowney's life. Once she establishes herself in this noisy men's world, the rest of the film is only a matter of seeing her recede into history.
But the performance of Bonnie Bedelia as Shirley never once falters and is particularly reminiscent of Sissy Spacek's Academy Award-winning portrayal of singer Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter—a movie that closely parallels this one. Growing from a cute teen bride into the kind of strained, tight-lipped early aging that drains the cheeks of so many working-class wives, Bedelia mixes gee whiz with a developing awareness.
Yet a surprising part of the charm of the movie is that it never permits itself to become the feminist tract that it could so easily have been. None of the men in Muldowney's life is predictably sexist. Her father (played by Hoyt Axton, the country singer) could be a Democratic presidential candidate addressing a NOW convention. Her husband, Jack, may whine in his cups, "I want you to start being a regular wife," but in the tender way Leo Rossi plays him, Jack Muldowney is no chauvinist pig, merely an insecure mechanic who cannot contend with the Establishment any more than he can with changes in the established ways of life.
Shirley's final love interest is another driver, Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges). Kalitta will take a shot at every skirt walking by, and he renames Shirley Cha-Cha and tricks her out in pink and black and hot pants, but Bridges portrays him dead on: just oversexed, not really sexist. There are more guys like that walking around than followers of women's lib might imagine, too.
The trouble is, any time you make a contemporary biography, you trade with the devil, selling theater for accuracy for its own sake. The affair between Shirley and Connie is certainly never well defined, hardly understood and barely ever engaging. The emphasis on the hot-rodding in the latter stages is just as soap-opera-ish, which is too bad, not only because it sullies a good story, but because it devalues the greater impact of Shirley Muldowney's life. That incidentally she went on to become champion of her field is really quite anticlimactic to that time far earlier in her development when she made up her mind to change herself—and then did. That is when the film is rich and involving.
But, sadly, car movies have such a deserved reputation for being trash that Heart Like a Wheel may be avoided by those who are familiar with that tawdry genre, and disliked by those who go to witness it in the expectation of enjoying more in the Burt Reynolds school of collision drama. Too bad. Good car movie. Good movie.