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  Heart Like a Wheel Speed Queen
Year: 1983
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Stars: Bonnie Bedelia, Beau Bridges, Leo Rossi, Anthony Edwards, Bill McKinney, Dean Paul Martin, Hoyt Axton, Diane Delano, Ellen Geer, Mitzi Hoag, Dick Miller, Byron Thames, Brandon Brent Williams, Bob Minor, Harry Northup, Nora Heflin, Paul Bartel
Genre: BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: When Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia) was a little girl her father (Hoyt Axton) used to allow her to steer the family car while he was in the driver's seat and she was sitting in his lap, and this memory encouraged her interest in cars. By the time she was a teenager living in Schenectady, New York, she had a boyfriend, Jack Muldowney (Leo Rossi), who was a mechanic and would race cars in the roads around the area, though Shirley began to believe she could do better at the contests, which were staged for gambling, than Jack could, so after they were married she started looking into the sport...

And the rest is history, with Shirley Muldowney the first woman to beat the men of drag racing at their own game, and indeed one of the first professional women to beat any men on their own terms in any sport. This gave her not only a legendary status, but a reputation as a ballbuster, to put it impolitely, though you didn't achieve what she did by being a pussycat and for many Bonnie Bedelia managed to capture that spirit in her portrayal, while adding a vulnerability as if to emphasise there were many obstacles to overcome before Shirley could be regarded as a champion sportswoman in her own right and not some novelty.

Muldowney's track record spoke for itself, but for Bedelia it was the role of a lifetime, and though she may not look much like the real person in spite of the lengths the hair and makeup department went to to ensure she was convincing as a teenager and a fortysomething with many points in between, she did capture quite a bit of what you would imagine the situations Shirley got into would be like. In short, Bedelia was excellent and many at the time were surprised she wasn't Oscar nominated such was the accomplishment of her performance; she had been a cult actress for a while by that stage, and would be for many years after, but her fans would lament this should really have been her ticket to the big time.

Not that Bedelia was ever wanting for roles, but given most moviegoers would recall her as Mrs John McClane in Die Hard, essentially the token wife, more attention should really be paid to Heart Like a Wheel. It might sound like the kind of material which fuelled a hundred afternoon TV movies, yet this had not only a superb lead, but she was bolstered by Beau Bridges as her business partner and erstwhile romantic partner Connie Kalitta, another performance to treasure as the charming womaniser who we're never sure if he wants to take the credit for making Shirley what she is in the drag racing world. The two actors created real sparks together on camera, and underlined Muldowney's acknowledgement that her gender was something few were able to dismiss.

Not that they should, but it's very satisfying to see Shirley throw all that male chauvinism back in the faces of the men who don't believe she has what it takes. That this was so effective can also be credited to the director Jonathan Kaplan, beginning to get a reputation as a very fine director of films with female interest after about a decade of making action movies, so Heart Like a Wheel with its dramatic scenes on the track would appear to be the ideal synthesis of the two styles. In addition, this developed surprisingly intense sequences as the fiery Shirley decides she is not going to roll over and prevent anyone from getting in the way of what she wants out of life, and that includes her husband who has trouble accepting his wife is a lot more adept than he is. The sequence where Shirley has her crash is even scary, filmed with ferocity by Kaplan and his crew - though that wasn't her most famous crash, as that happened the year after this was released. No matter, there was enough here to lift it above the usual sporting biopic, making the necessary clich├ęs fresh. Music by Laurence Rosenthal.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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