Breaking Away 40th Anniversary Screening Egyptian Theater American Cinematique

It has been nine years since my original post on this film from the Summer of 1979. I’m sure that I have revisited this movie at least once in that time but not in a theater so it was not included in any post that I have done in the intervening decade. Since the original post was included in my “Movie A Day” project, it is heavy with personal remembrances and observations about the events in my life when I first saw the film. “Breaking Away” was a movie that was released at a pivotal time in my life and that is one reason I cherish it.

Other than my personal reflections however, there are a huge number of reasons to love this movie and they were all on display last night at the Egyptian Theater. The American Cinematique had wrangled up a large portion of the cast to come and talk to us about the film, and the stories they shared about their casting, acting and behind the scenes moments were fascinating. First however, a few notes about the movie itself.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, let me give you a quick thumbnail infocluster to bring you up to speed. “Breaking Away” is a combination of “Rocky” and “Stand by Me”, with a slightly older cast, no serious threat of violence, and bicycles instead of boxing gloves. It is a positive twist on the coming of age story, one where the family is strengthened by the events of the film rather than damaged by them. Dave, the enthusiastic cyclist played by Dennis Christopher, is a young man in search of himself, but somewhat blinded by his friendships with the high school buddies he hangs out with. His father despairs of him ever doing something with his life and is even more frustrated by the personae his son has adopted, as an Italian immigrant. Dave is not delusional or deranged, he is merely caught up in his idol worship of the Italian Cycling team from Cinzano. The fantasy feeds his own skills and determination when training and it offers a refuge from the uncertainty of the future.

Although his friends are a major component of the film, and they are listed as the lead characters of the movie, the real relationships that are the basis of what happens are those that Dave has with his parents. Oscar Nominated Barbara Barrie, is a supportive, patient and soothing rock that Dave can always feel as the foundation of his existence. We learned last night, that the critical scene where she shows Dave her Passport and dreams of the things it might represent to her and others, was largely improvised by the two actors. Her smile and demeanor, and the way she holds the passport up for him to see as she subtly suggests he take advantages of all the opportunities before him, is probably the moment that cinched her recognition by the Academy.

As great as Barbara Barrie is in the film, she is matched moment by moment by the actor Paul Dooley playing Dave’s exasperated father. Mr. Dooley was present last night for the screening. He sat in the row behind me and was there for half an hour at least before the movie began. One fan approached him in search of an autograph which he graciously provided. I am a long time resident of Southern California. Celebrity sightings are not uncommon and I have always tried to be polite and non-intrusive, but I have to admit his presence got the best of me last night. Instead of remaining detached and respectful of his space, I did approach him as I headed up to the lobby before the show, I offered my hand and a brief admiration of his performance. As I’m sure he has heard a thousand times before, I shared how his performance reminded me of my own father and he smiled and said that he modeled his role on his father. He mentioned that fact again in the conversation after the film with the whole audience, but for that moment, it felt like we were sharing a thought just between the two of us. I have always maintained that he was overlooked that year for acting honors and I hope that the good wishes of fans like me can compensate a bit for that oversight. In the movie he is gruff, romantic, sarcastic and ultimately the kind of father that all of us would love to have.

Mike, Cyril, and Moocher are the three friends that Dave has tied his fate to at the moment. The screenplay, which won the Academy Award that year, treats each of these characters in a complete way. Not all of their problems are solved at the end of the movie, but we know them better and they are on a clearer path than before the story unfolded. Dennis Quaid is the embittered Mike, a high school football star doomed to watch other young men achieve athletic success at the University while he fades away. Mike is not a sympathetic character for much of the film. He acts like a local bully as a way of retaining some sense of worth, and he demeans his friends when they suggest that they need to move on. Of the four young men, he needs to do the most maturing if his life is to get better.

Cyril and Moocher are less critical to the main events but they are essential to understand the relational dynamics going on. Cyril is the put upon, sad faced joker of the group. He is the Eeyore to Dave’s Pooh. Daniel Stern, who has had a terrific career starring in comedies that most of us know well, was also present last night. He talked about his own casting, and how he really was not sure that he’d gotten the part. This was his first film and his enthusiasm was infectious. He and Dennis Christopher had to keep prompting one another on memories of shooting the film. Before he sat down, he proudly displayed the Cutters t-shirt he was wearing under his jacket. While there is certainly progress in the growing up of the kids in the story, as I said before, not everything is resolved. In the group celebration shot near the end of the movie, everyone has someone to celebrate with except Cyril, who still looks lost despite the accomplishment of the group. A good acting and directing choice. Moocher has a young wife and unbridled optimism at the future. Jackie Earle Haley was not present last night but all the cast members were very enthusiastic about what he brought to the film, and they recalled at the time, he was the biggest name in the cast having recently done the Bad News Bears movies.

Also attending the screening was actor Hart Bochner who played the Fraternity boy antagonist, Rod. Islands in the Stream“. Although Rod might be seen as the bad guy in the movie, he really has little malice in his part. Most of the time he is reacting to the townskids. When the college kids go to the quarry to swim, the Cutters give them the cold shoulder. He reacts like a jealous boyfriend when the girl he is dating gets flowers and serenaded by an “Italian” exchange student. The only time he really seems to be a douche is when he is hitting on another co-ed as he drives her around campus. Bochner has a very effective moment of empathy and self loathing when Mike bashes his head on the quarry wall while racing Rod. Bochner also had to prompt Dennis Christopher on a couple of his memories about training for the movie.

This was only his second movie, after a film I wrote about earlier this summer ”

One memory that Christopher did not need to be prompted on was the first day of shooting. He was extremely unhappy with the costumes and hairstyle that had been chosen for him. The implication was that he was a greaser rather than the naive young man embracing a fantasy identity. His self doubts were communicated to director Peter Yates and the actor and director altered to character to more closely reflect Dave as Dennis Christopher conceived him. It was a wise choice because Dave need to be the sympathetic center of the story and the other perspective would have undermined the audience reaction.

Both Stern and Christopher were moved by their participation in this film, early in their careers. Paul Dooley proudly stated that it was the best movie he ever appeared in and he thought it was his own best performance. I can’t think of a reason to second guess any of these men. They also spoke very highly of the work done by actress Robyn Douglass who played Kathy, the girl that Dave is pursuing in his fake persona. All of them were also effusive in citing director Peter Yates as having a strong influence of the film. One of them mentioned how interesting it was that it took a British director to find the truth in an American family. Yates also helped shepard what were two screenplays into one, which turned the story into a more complete picture.

It is evenings like this which make living in the Los Angeles area worthwhile and the American Cinematique, whatever financial or management issues it might be facing, still knows how to put on a show.

courtesy American Cinematique

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