“Trying to make us damned…golf!”
Heart Like a Wheel is the kind of movie you see on late night TV: a mildly amusing true story about someone you’ve never heard of and her struggle to overcome adversity and maybe find herself in the process. In this case, that someone is Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia), later known as “Cha Cha,” a 1960s housewife who became the first woman to obtain a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and the first person ever to win two and then three Top Fuel titles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirley_Muldowney). Her struggle consists of establishing herself as a serious dragster. The adversity, well, that’s the sexist all-male drag race scene. You might say the whole thing is a drag.
One night, Shirley’s mechanic husband, Jack (Leo Rossi), lets her race his sports car on the street. She beats Jack’s rival and discovers that she digs the thrill of drag racing. Soon, she’s hanging out at the racetrack, where she meets Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges), a veteran racer and womanizer. Jealous of her success, Jack leaves Shirley to her own devices.
I picked up Heart Like a Wheel for one reason, and one reason only: I read that My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult sampled this movie in a song or two. Overall, it’s a mixed bag, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s better than mediocre. The acting is good. Ken Friedman’s screenplay is competent if not exactly deep, peppered with some snappy dialogue. When a skeezy reporter (Martin Casella) asks Shirley what a beautiful girl like her is doing at a racetrack, for example, her one-word response is casual, bored, and totally fucking awesome: “Winning.” Director Jonathan Kaplan stages realistic fight scenes, particularly between Connie and Shirley’s teenage son, John (played by a young Anthony Edwards). He even throws in a couple of real racers (Steve Evans and Sam Posey) and fire. It was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1984). The whole thing comes off like a soap opera, but it works. I never did catch those samples, though.
Bonus: the DVD I have includes trailers for four other films, The Turning Point, Kenny & Company, Rhinestone with Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone, and Six Pack with Kenny Rogers and Anthony Michael Hall. They all look as awful as “Born to Win” by Jill Michaels, the Heart Like a Wheel theme song.
With Hoyt Axton, Creed Bratton, Tiffany Brissette, Michael Cavanaugh, Diane Delano, Mitzi Hoag, Nora Heflin, Brandon Brent Williams
Production: Aurora Productions
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
(DVD purchase) C