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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Biopic > Sports > Racing > Heart Like A Wheel Special Edition

Heart Like A Wheel Special Edition


Picture: C+   Sound: C+   Extras: B+    Film: B-



Heart Like A Wheel is a solid entry in the overcoming-great-odds-to-become-a-champion biopic.  It wasn't the first of its kind and it certainly wasn't the last, but this one is nicely done and worth a look.


It's the story of the first female drag racer, Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia), who overcame lots of sexist attitudes in an otherwise all-male sport to become an unlikely champion.  The film chronicles Shirley's rise to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s.


Shirley started drag racing as a young woman in the late 1950s to make a few extra bucks.  Because she was a woman, she wasn't supposed to succeed, but she ended up winning a lot of amateur drag races, and decided to turn pro against the advice of practically every male she came across.


Married to her high-school sweetheart, Jack Muldowney (Leo Rossi), Shirley started out racing just on weekends with Jack as her mechanic, but did well enough in competition that she eventually wanted to make it a full-time pursuit. Her determination to become not only the first woman racer in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), but a champion as well, eventually was too much for Jack to handle, leading to the dissolution of their marriage.  With Jack out of the picture, Shirley, by this time nicknamed "Cha Cha," began a long relationship with fellow hot rodder, Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges), who turned out to be an incorrigible, lying womanizer.


Even those who never heard of Shirley Muldowney and know nothing of the world of hot-rod racing (put me in that category) will find the story arch of Heart Like A Wheel familiar -- it's always in the back of your mind that this is the type of true story that wouldn't be being told unless Shirley became a champion or at the very least far exceeded expectations.  However, the quality of writing and acting here maintains our interest on a scene by scene basis.  The underrated Bedelia is especially good in a performance that got her a Golden Globe nomination despite the fact 20th Century Fox only gave the film a limited U.S. release in the spring of 1983.


But from a few items that I read after the fact, Muldowney's rough edges have been softened to make her more palatable for audiences.  Just as Sally Field was reportedly a lot more ingratiating as the real-life character she played in Norma Rae, one of the best films about a brave woman challenging the status quo, you get the feeling Bedelia's own personality also made the screen version of Muldowney easier to like.  The real Muldowney, who's supposedly a sometimes harsher woman than she's portrayed, mentions in an interview in the extras that Jamie Lee Curtis was her first choice to play her, but had to settle for Bedelia when Curtis wasn't available.


Anchor Bay has given Heart Like A Wheel a decent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with some grain visible during a couple of the nighttime scenes.  The Dolby Digital Mono sound is standard.  For fans of the film itself, there's an audio commentary by director Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused, Unlawful Entry), some deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer and a poster and still gallery.  However, this special edition also aims to please NHRA fans with two in-depth documentaries featuring interviews with Muldowney, Kalitta and Muldowney's longtime friendly rival, Don Garlits, talking about the film and their careers.  Conspicuous by their absence, though, are any interviews with Bedelia, Bridges, Rossi or any other cast members.



- Chuck O'Leary


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