Breaking Away (1979): Tesich’s Oscar-Winning Comedy, Starring Young Dennis Quaid

The strongest merit of Breaking Away is Steve Tesich’s original screenplay, which won a well-deserved Oscar.

An immigrant from Yugoslavia, Tesich wrote a semi-autobiographical film about how, as a graduate of Indiana University, in Bloomington (where the movie is set), he raced in the Little 500 race, winning the 1962 championship.

Four young guys walk toward the camera on a narrow dirt road, surrounded by thick vegetation; the soundtrack plays the melodic “O’ Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” The abandoned quarry dwarfs the teenagers, who have to climb over rocks; it’s one of many symbols of the obstacles they have to surmount. It’s a beautiful spot in nature, a huge pool of water with cliffs on three sides, a place where the quartet spends a lot of time together in what’s their favorite hangout.

The major issue they face is what to do after high school. “My dad says Jesus never went further than fifty miles from his home,” says Cyril. “And look what happened to him,” Mike quips. Cyril will “kinda miss school,” but there is also a sense of relief; “it’s the first time nobody’s going to ask us to write a theme about how we spent our summer.” Still a kid, Cyril joins kids playing basketball; he says he got “depressed as hell when my athlete’s foot and jock itch went away.”

Cyril was sure he’d get a basketball scholarship but he didn’t. He suffers from inferiority complex, perpetuated by a father who’s “real understanding” only when he fails. Hence, Cyril’s dad bought him a guitar because he was sure he would never learn to play it.

In contrast, Dave (Dennis Christopher), the film’s hero, is planning to take the college entrance exam; he is just curious to see if he can pass. Moocher’s father is in Chicago, so he has the option of moving to Chicago, where there are more jobs. The four guys are members of a cohesive primary group. Delighted that he no longer works for the A&P, Mike says, “aren’t you glad we got fired.” “We didn’t get fired,” Moocher corrects him, “You got fired. We quit.” “One for all and all for one,” exclaims Mike with pride, hoping that his friends would continue to stick together.

But there is still sexual segregation. Moocher is the only one who goes steady with Nancy (Amy Wright), soon to become his fiance. The whole thing is a secret, unbeknownst to his mates. Moocher experiences a conflict between commitment to his male camaraderie and romantic interest. Nancy left home, but she moved to an apartment only five blocks away from her folks. Her aspiration level is as low as the boys: If she keeps up the good work, she will become a head cashier. The film contrasts this working-class group with the richer college kids, who describe the poor as “dumbass cutters and goddamn rednecks retards.” The only thing the two groups share in common and fight over is territory. Both groups like to swim at the quarry hole. Mikes hates those bastards, because, “they’ve got indoor pools and outdoor pools on the campus, but they still got to come here.” “It’s my goddamn quarry!” says Mike; Cyril sings the theme of Exodus: “This hole! This quarry hole is mine!” They resolve that if the college kids invade their territory, they’d go to campus and raise hell–which they later do.

The college kids reside on a nice street named “Fraternity Row” in enormous houses surrounded by neat lawns. The modern structures stand in sharp opposition to the other side of town, where the cutters live. The students are engaged in upper-class pursuits: sunbathing in fashionable suits, washing their expensive cars, listening to transistor radios, and playing Frisbee. “Going to college must do something to girls’ tits,” says Cyril, “just look at them, campussies and sororititties.” “The’ve got it made,” says Moocher. But Dave sees inverse correlation between riches and happiness, reminding them that the Italians, his role models, are poor but happy.

Dave’s father, Mr. Blase (Paul Dooley), is worried about his son. “He wanted a year with those bums, so I gave him a year, but what’s he going to do” Evelyn (Barbara Barrie), his more relaxed wife, believes Dave should go to college. “Why should he go to college” asks the father, “I didn’t. When I was nineteen, I was working in the quarries ten hours a day.” But now most quarries have shut down and there are no jobs. Blase wants his son to come home “tired from looking for a job. He’s never tired.” He believes that Dave is “too stupid” to go to college; besides he’s afraid that once in college Dave will thumb his diploma at him. “He is worthless, I could die of shame every time I see him.” In other films, families fight with their kids, demanding that they live at home, but not in this story. Dave’s staying home derives from his belief that “Italian families stay together.” Moreover, Dave thinks his parents should have another kid. He’s a stronger supporter of conventional family values than his folks are.

On his first date with the rich Katherine (Robyn Douglas), she tells him she doesn’t miss her parents and that she went as far as she could to get away from them. Dave puts her to tears when he says, “but they miss you.” Dave is romantic, sending flowers to Katherine. When her rich boyfriend Rod (Hart Bochner) demands to know if “Dave has gotten into you” she slaps him. But like Moocher, Rod is more concerned whether anyone saw him get hit by a woman than by the act itself.

Admiring the Italian racers, Dave becomes obsessed with their lifestyle. He has been pretending to be Italian ever since he won that Italian bike. His room is practically an Italian museum, with posters of Italian racers, Italian movies, Italian racing magazines. His favorite singer is Enrico Gimondi singing Neapolitan favorites, and his cat’s name is Fellini. Using an Italian phrase book, he converses in Italian.

Dave’s father is appalled by the sight of his son shaving his legs. Sick and tired of sauted zucchini and Fetuccini, he wants “some American food.” “Try not to become Italian on us,” says Dave’s mother, “Your father’s quite Protestant.” “He was a normal pumpkin pie,” an elderly lady observes upon seeing Dave biking and singing in Italian, “Now look at him. His poor parents.” Dave’s father used to be a stonecutter, working for the college buildings. When he visits the Quarry Shop, he avoids stepping into the limestone dust with his polished shoes. He is glad to be back but he keeps a little distance, to show how far he has come in life. The old-time cutters think he looks like “a government safety inspector,” or “a union organizer.” However, when the younger cutters don’t recognize him, he’s offended.

These scenes capture beautifully the nuances of class structure and distinctions in small towns. In Breaking Away, the father has lost his support group, he no longer belongs. A used car salesman, his lot contains all kinds of cars: “Campus Cars,” “Graduate School Special,” “English Major,” “Homecoming Queen.” “I sold one of my worst cars to one of them today,” he pokes fun at the college kids; occasionally, he is not very honest. The film is ambiguous: Is being a car salesman better job than being a cutter, a job that at least requires some specialized skills. Though neither frustrated nor bitter Dave’s mother dreams of going to exciting places. She carries a passport, just in case, but she has never been outside of Indiana. All protagonists, both veterans and youngsters, display a healthier attitude toward sex than their counterparts in similar films. Dave’s mother orchestrates a seduction scene, with the right music and candles, and even casual stripping. Every act follows with a counteract. When she removes the flower from her hair, he reciprocates by ripping the pencil case out of his pocket. While Dave courts Katherine by singing, his mother seduces his father with Italian music.

The highway sign reads; “Welcome to Bloomington, Home of Indiana University.” “It’s campus everything,” says Mike, “I feel like some Indian reservation surrounded by Disneyland.” “What gets me,” he continues, is “reading in the papers how some hotshot kid is the new star on the college team.” “Every year there’ll be a new one and it’s never going to be me.” Mike’s brother broke away” from his class, he is a cop; Mike calls him “pussycop.” A loud protest follows the university president’s announcement to include a local team from the town. “Most of you will only spend four years here, but to a lot of us Bloomington is our home, and I don’t like the way you are behaving in my town.”

Breaking Away shows sensitivity to American “peculiarities,” despite the fact that it was scripted by a writer of foreign descent and directed by a Brit, Peter Yates. Its very title works on several levels. At its most literal, it refers to the moment in bicycle racing, when one cyclist bursts out of the pack. At a more symbolic level, it describes that crucial moment in life (as a race), when an individual has to forego soothing and comforting primary relationships and enter into the “real” unknown world. Dave’s father has broken away from the cutters, and Dave needs to break away from his family and close-knit friends. Katherine has broken away from her family.

A coming of age picture, the saga is replete with rites of passage into adulthood, depicting those precious last moments of “irresponsible” adolescence. It’s set in the last summer of adolescence, just prior to the beginning of the inevitably disillusioning adulthood. But the film itself breaks away from stereotypical settings and characters.

Familiar issues from other small-town movies are presented in a new setting. Hence, the class conflict is not depicted as a bitter struggle. And unlike most American movies, this one shows that sexuality does not have to end in middle age. Though somehow resentful and defeated, the losers become winners, if only for one brief moment, when they win the race. The film’s nominal outsiders are the college students who invade town from all over the country and dominate it for several years. Yet paradoxically, it’s the college kids who contribute to the town’s prestige and national visibility. Indeed, the real outsiders are the cutters–in their own town. Inferior in their origins, they display an acute sense of class-consciousness; they know their limitations.

Each of the four guys represents a different attitude toward life. Some are losers, willing to admit, at eighteen, their defeat. Says Mike: “I’ll just be Mike 20 year-old. Mike 30 year-old. Old man Mike. But the college kids will never get old, out of shape, ’cause new ones come every year. And they’ll keep calling us ‘cutters.'”

“To them it’s a dirty word,” says Dave, “but to me t’ll just be something else I never got a chance to be.” Mike used to be a leader but embittered about his failure to become a college athlete, he knows that his glory as a star quarterback is over; nothing ahead could be as exciting as that. A compromiser, Moocher sees the solution in marriage, willing to take any job that will enable him to marry a girl of his own class; there’s no mobility for him either. Cyril is the cynical type, resigned to play the failure his parents always believed he would be.

Dave, the only future-oriented member, will amount to something. A romantic dreamer, he is also the loyal friend, committed to values of family and camaraderie. He too is disillusioned at the end with his Italian subculture: In his first race with them, the Italians cruelly mistreat him. Dave accepts his working class background, even grows to be proud of it. Stripping the walls of Italian memorabilia, Dave calls his father “dad,” instead of papa. A Capraesque hero, Dave is capable of transforming himself, of moving beyond his immediate circumstances, of forging a new identity. Spunk, intelligence, energy, generosity, and idealism prove to be invaluable assets in his case.

The narrative stresses that, in ideology, there is still greater mobility in the U. S. than in any other country in the world.  But while the class system is more open, in practice, three of the four kids will not improve on their initial status, thus perpetuating the built-in inequality.

The film also endorses democratic values, such as free play and competition. At the end, the obnoxious and rich Rod must acknowledge the cutters’ qualities and their winning.

In turning its underdog protagonists into winners, Breaking Away set the characteristic tone for other films of the 1980s.