I have written before that the summer of 1979 was my favorite growing up. There are a number of reasons for this and I have mentioned some of them. I need to talk about today’s movie in the context of some of the other reasons. These other reasons are not really the fun things that I mentioned before; graduating from college, not needing a job, floating in the pool or anticipating graduate school. The summer of 1979 happened in the shadow of some pretty hard events in my world. Dolores graduated from college the same time as I did, but her celebration of this and mine was tempered by the death of her father just a week before commencement. He had been sick and suffered several strokes and heart attacks in his last few months but it still was a shock that Tex Duckworth was not there with us. Dolores and her brother and sister were a little stuck trying to figure out what was going to happen with them. They had to grow up a little faster because there was no family home to return to. They made due, getting jobs and living together for several months before moving off on their separate lives. In March of 1979, before the National Debate Tournament, my two closest friend on the debate team were in a horrible accident on their way to spend some recreation time with friends in Colorado. While driving through Arizona, a drunk truck driver rear ended them and Leo Mohr, who was captain of the Trojan Debate Team, was killed. Rick Rollino, my debate partner, was severely burned, and although he would live, it was clear that his life was going to change. All of us have burdens that we carry with us on a daily basis, most of them are minor annoyances. Being part of an accident like this, losing a close friend, and being physically changed in many ways could easily lead to bitterness and depression. I have not spoken about the mental aspect of this with my friend Rick for thirty-one years. I never thought I needed to because, while he might have been depressed, he never showed it. I have never heard him let a bitter thought out of his head concerning any of this in all the time that has gone by. I know I have cursed the world a few times about it. Every March it pops into my head and I resent that Leo is not around and I wish that Rick didn’t have to be hurt. The truth is most of the rest of the time it doesn’t occur to me because Rick is the same guy he always was. I forget the physical changes, because there is so little change in the rest of him.
You might be wondering why this somewhat maudlin story is connected to this movie. There are a couple of reasons. First of all, the theme of the movie is about growing up and becoming the person that you are meant to be. The character of Dave in “Breaking Away” is a wonderful guy, but he is trying so hard to be something different he doesn’t notice the effect it is having on everyone around him. His friends are struggling with unmet dreams, and he is still dreaming. His father is frustrated that his health keeps him from doing the work that he loved, but his son is driving him crazy and giving him as much worry as the old job did. The girl he woos is going to be hurt when she discovers his Italian persona is all an act. There is nothing wrong with being a little afraid of the future, and certainly nothing wrong with dreaming big. There is a problem however, if you run away from yourself. That is the lesson that Dave learns in the movie. It is a lesson that I learned quite a bit from my own friend’s experience in the hospital. When I would visit Rick, he made fun of the stupid things I might have said, or he laughed at the dumb joke I might have made. He wasn’t stoic, or reserved or bitter. Rick was the same guy I knew, and I was moving into my adulthood more effectively because of that. I found out the strength I had by helping the love of my life get through her transition to being an “orphan”. I also discovered a capacity to think of others more because of my friendship with Rick and my position on the Trojan Debate Squad as an assistant coach. John DeBross, my mentor and the Director of Forensics at USC, along with Lee Garrison, the Director of Debate and the guy I modeled my life on, both asked me to work with Rick to make sure his return to school, and competition went as well as it could while he was still recovering. It meant a lot to me that they saw my friendship with Rick as a way to help him and the team out. Truth be told Rick did not need much help. He was very self sufficient, and I wanted to be that way as well. So like Dave in the story, I had to learn to look not just at what I wanted, but at what would help others be the people they wanted to be as well. The character Mike, played by Dennis Quaid, is the former football star who is rapidly losing any vision of the future that is positive. Rick could easily have become that guy. So could I. It is friendship that gives them some faith that things will look up.
The second reason that I have always identified with this movie and the characters is simple. This was the first movie I saw with Rick after he got out of the hospital. I think it may have been the first time he had gone out on his own since his injuries. Dan Hasegawa and I, drove down to Torrance, picked Rick up and traveled up to Westwood to see this movie in what was then an exclusive engagement. Rick had pressure gloves on his hands for the skin grafts and a Bandage on his head that looked like a turban. We had dinner somewhere I don’t remember, but I do remember that we went to the late show that night and we did not get back to Torrance until nearly mid-night. All three of us enjoyed the movie immensely. Thinking about it, we were basically the same age as the characters in the film. Sometimes each of us was morose like Cyril, hot-headed like Moocher, frustrated and confused like Mike, and fearful but a little bit of a dreamer like Dave. One of the things that this summer of 1979 always reminds me of is that we all grow up. We don’t see the little things that change on on a daily basis, at least most of the time. While I was goofing off a lot that summer, I also know that I was becoming the person I wanted to be. I wanted to be a friend that someone could count on,I wanted to be the guy that someone else loved so much she would put up with my faults. I wanted to be a professional in my field, and I also wanted to keep dreaming. “Breaking Away” is a reminder of all of those things.
Now a few things about the movie for those of you who came here for that. Filmmakers are often criticized for cashing in on the “Rocky” formula; the underdog overcoming long odds and having a feel good moment to polish off the film. There are a lot of hackneyed movies that do this and don’t really earn the emotion that comes with that conclusion. “Breaking Away” earned every cheer and every tear and every laugh in it. There are no pat answers, no cheap jokes. The characters are not always likable. In the end we do like them because we went on the whole journey with them. As I watched the trailer, I thought they did a good job of selling the movie. I thought it was good because it emphasizes the humor and coming of age story, but it doesn’t tip it’s hand at how deep the movie is about so many things. You want to see the movie, but when you do you know that you got so much more than you expected, that you have immense respect for what you just witnessed. At Awards time, many movie-goers cheer for the sleeper film, the one that sneaks past the prestige products and artful pet efforts of directors and into the limelight. “Breaking Away” is the original little film that could, it received five Academy award nominations, including those for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. The only shame that exists, is that Paul Dooley, who plays Dave’s father, did not receive recognition for his work in the movie. He is incredibly funny and very real. Both he and Barbara Barrie as Dave’s Mom, have excellent scenes in the movie with Dave. The four lead actors are young but very solid. Dennis Quaid has had a terrific career, despite not achieving the stardom levels that many expected. Daniel Stern will always be associated with the “Home Alone” movies, but I always think of him as the voice of the adult Kevin from the Wonder years. Jackie Earle Haley, was a child star, and disappeared for twenty-five years. Now he is back on the Hollywood radar and received Academy attention for “Little Children” and was my favorite Watchman in the “Watchmen” movie. I have not seen much of Dennis Christopher over the years. A couple years after “Breaking Away” he starred in a horror thriller I saw called “Fade to Black”. I know I recognized him in something a couple of years ago, but I have forgotten what it was.
A lot of things stand out about this movie. I saw the thanks at the end for the Cinzano teams assistance in making the movie, if ever there was an example of bad product placement it was here. I was as heartbroken as Dave to discover his heroes were not all that he dreamed. His humiliation at their hands and the dramatic breakdown that follows in his fathers arms, puts a Black Eye on anything associated with the Cinzano name. I know it was just a movie, but imagine that it was a Pepsi truck that ran over Bambi’s mom, you know that Pepsi would never be a product you would feel the same about. The University there in Bloomington, looks like a mid-western university should. Those four guys sitting above the stadium watching football practice is a reminder of how they are outsiders in their own home town. The quarry swimming hole looks amazing, and it will simply remind kids living in big cities of the pleasures they miss by doing so. I loved the scene where Dave is paced by the Cinzano truck on the highway, and the way that the unnamed driver instinctively knows what he needs as they are traveling along the road. All the jokes about Italian music and language are not mean spirited, but rather reflect the awkwardness the dad feels around his own house. We get a lovely serenade, opera music in the house and joyful singing during the bike scenes. There is so much to laugh at in the movie, you might forget that it is also a dramatic story. The events are not earth shattering, the characters are certainly not glamorous. Yet you will feel moved and attracted to everyone eventually. (Except those Damn Italians).
I was 6,000 miles away from Torrance during the summer of 79 and for a lot of reasons it was my least favorite summer ever. Which is why I came home at the end of the year, only to find a younger brother who had learned a smattering of French and tortured everyone with speaking it with an awful accent CONSTANTLY.
I saw Breaking Away at the insistence of my family, all of whom identified with the film family. I loved it then and loved it recently when we watched it with the kids.