Back in the ’80s, I was helping my “sourdough” housemates set up for a poker game in a place I rented up Kodiak, Alaska way.
And then “Breaking Away” came on the satellite dish TV. As I settled in to watch it, I started talking it up. One by one, the other guys finished what that they were doing and joined in. None of them had seen it.
Other players arrived, wound-up and ready for some poker and a few Kodiak “slammers,” (tequila and 7-Up and don’t get me started on that). But they started watching, too. Whatever this 1979 Peter Yates dramedy holds for women, or members of minority groups unrepresented on the screen in those less diverse times, for blue collar white guys, it was instant nostalgia in its day, cinematic comfort food about paths taken and not taken, the endless possibilities of youth and the limits of small town — even a college town — life.
After the film ended and the drinking and money-losing started, I noticed how everybody’d picked up catch phrases.
Have a snack. ” It’s I-ty food. I don’t want no I-ty food.”
A straight, Jack high. MY pot. “Refund? REFUND!”
People tuned in to this minor hit’s magic right from the start. I remember Midwesterner Roger Ebert raving up this tale of Bloomington, Indiana on his TV show when “Breaking Away” came out. And as the years passed the nostalgia for a nostalgic-when-it-was-new movie endured. Entertainment Weekly did a cute cover story with the four young actors it helped launch — Dennis Christopher, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley and Dennis Quaid — 35 years later posing for a shot in their “Cutters” shirts.
Looking at it now, it’s obvious that even what it was selling back then was a sort of romantic, idealized and alcohol-free vision of white male post-high school youth, and perhaps it was set in still-seriously-segregated Indiana for a reason. Because that helped sell it.
But four sons of stone-cutting quarry workers, men who’d given their kids some piece of the middle class life with their labor, struggling to figure out what to do with the extra choices their parents passed on to them, that story still resonates as it always did. It’s still magical.
Christopher plays Dave Stohler, 19ish and utterly obsessed with cycling. This was pre-Greg LeMond, pre-US TV coverage of the Tour de France. A few different-drum kids of that era got into bicycle racing (including me), but Dave has gone off the deep end. He’s so into “The Italians” who battled the French and Belgians for dominance of the sport back then that he’s learning Italian, speaking Italian to his indulgent mother (Barbara Barrie) and utterly dismayed Dad, played by the great Paul Dooley.
Buon giorno, papa!
“I’m not “papa.” I’m your god-damned father. She’s your god-damned mother…That’s MY cat! His name’s Jake, not Fellini! I won’t have any “eenie” in this house!”
Dave’s only got room for one obsession at a time, so his life is as aimless as his running mates. Mike (Quaid, in his break-out performance) used to be a jock and is facing 20 with the growing knowledge that his best years and most of his possibilities are behind him. Cyril (Stern) is a quizzical wit who might not be witty enough to compete with the real wits at college, should he try to get in. And Moocher (Haley) is short, short-tempered and barely keeping it together, living on his own in a house his father’s trying to sell from Chicago, where the old man is job hunting. Moocher may have to settle down to get even the tiniest taste of security. He’s touchy about that, too
Over the course of this late summer/early school year, they’ll tangle with snobby Indiana U. college kids, who look down their noses at “cutters.” They’ll swim in an abandoned quarry, goof around and hang as “the four musketeers” as long as they can. They’ll support Dave’s cycling dream. Dave will fall in love with a coed (Robyn Douglas at her most winsome) and trick her into thinking he’s an Italian exchange student.
Eyes will open, idealism will fade or change course and dialects. And they’ll race as a team at the Indiana University Little 500, a fraternity system relay race with bicycles sprinting around a running track.
Great films burn themselves into the memory selectively. It’s scenes and sketches of characters we remember. Director Yates — who also did “Bullitt,” for Pete’s sake — scores Dave’s cycling moments to Felix Mendelsohn’s “Italian Symphony,” including one thrilling bit where the kid is drafting behind a highway trucker. Dave serenades Kathy, aka “Katerina,” with an aria, “M’appari Tutt’s Amor” from Flotow’s opera “Martha.” Cyril hilariously accompanies Dave on guitar, but that doesn’t break the spell this scene casts.
A generation of guys learned the value of the Big Romantic Gesture from that moment.
In the years since first seeing the film, on a single screen at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, Va. (another college town, a lot like Bloomington), I’ve never turned down the opportunity to interview any of its principals.
Stern expanded on his comical/quizzical turn to become the voice of “The Wonder Years” and a menace on “Home Alone.” The last time I interviewed Quaid was for “The Rookie,” as he traveled full circle back to being the convincing jock he’d been on screen just starting out.
Haley, a scene-stealer as the All World tween jock of “The Bad News Bears,” became a generational icon of a different stripe, a fanboy and fangirl favorite thanks to “Watchmen” (the movie, which he also stole) and a turn as Freddy Krueger in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” reboot. We joked about how, of all the guys in “Breaking Away,” he was the most natural looking on a bike, even if it was over-sized for him. Yeah, the shortest guy in the film was the real jock. And a badass.
One thing that collectively stands out about this crew is how well Yates cast them. You can see Christopher getting the hang of the bike as the film progresses, never quite mastering “form.” But they mesh and make us believe they’ve been friends forever, and that their time together is destined to end.
Yugoslav immigrant Steve Tesich, who scripted “Eyewitness” and “The World According to Garp,” as well as the cycling drama “American Flyer,” tapped into a lot of Americana and Midwestern land grant university truisms here. But his European point of view brought cycling into the story and to America’s heartland, destined to become home to the first U.S. riders to gain glory in the sport in the ’80s and ’90s — LeMond from Wisconsin, Andrew Hampstead from North Dakota, where I took classes in grad school from his mother.
The label “classic film” can be a consensus view, as “Breaking Away” is, or a wholly personal one. It’s easy to imagine whole generations not tuning in to its wavelength, not relating to its white, Midwestern college/townie nostalgia. But the bones it is built on are universal — post-high school ennui, confusion, seeing the limits of your life for the first time, losing yourself in “escape” and self-delusion, dating over your head.
Transplant “Breaking Away” to the Latino southwest or Asian Northwest or an urban African American environment, find some obsession to take the place of bicycle racing, and the themes, teen angst and comradery would still resonate. The generational “I want you to do better than me” messaging translates into any culture. We see a bit of “Breaking Away” in the derivative recent coming-of-age drama “Armageddon Time,” about growing up working class Jewish in New York, for instance.
That’s what makes a classic.
The lifelong passions it engendered for some of us — bicycles, Mendelssohn and movies with Big Romantic Gestures? Those are just a bonus.
Rating: PG, a fistfight, profanity and smoking
Cast: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Robyn Douglas, Daniel Stern, Barbara Barrie, Jackie Earle Haley and Paul Dooley.
Credits: Directed by Peter Yates, scripted by Steve Tesich. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 1:41