Heart Like a Wheel

How was it that the Bridges brothers starred in two of the very best auto racing movies ever made—Jeff in The Last American Hero (as a fictionalized Junior Johnson) and Beau in this film? Both movies were so well done that they stand on their own as movies. Heart Like a Wheel, in fact, garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Bonnie Bedelia, who starred as trailblazer Shirley Muldowney.

The reason the film works so well is that these real people have not been white-washed. It starts with Bridges’ portrayal of Connie Kalitta as equal parts hot-tempered womanizer and irresistible charmer, not above using Shirley’s son to get to her but also really liking the boy. First husband Jack Muldowney is a weak dreamer who calls for money after she realizes fame many years removed from the start he gave her, but strong enough to provide her with her first race car and stand up to the bullies—for a while.

And possibly the most remarkable character is Bedelia’s version of the very complex Muldowney. The film focuses on her life prior to the three national championships, subtly proving that if you want something badly enough, and you have the talent to back it up, you can achieve seemingly impossible dreams. But rather than placing Shirley on a pedestal, as it would have been easy to do since she was advisor for the film, we get to see the conflicting and conflicted person who broke down barriers in what was a genuine man’s world, and yet, in her hot pants, heavy make-up and pink race cars, never let anybody forget that she could be a girly girl, too.

Shirley Roque Muldowney often made questionable choices in her life, and eventually choose racing over her family. She was said to be abrasive with officials, fellow racers, crew members and even fans, and spent years hooked up with a married man who told nearly every bimbo he saw on the side, “You’re the most important thing in my life.” But what was never in question was that she backed up with talent and results her decision to go racing over the conventional life that was the result of being a high-school drop-out and waitress married to a time-clock-punching mechanic. Don Garlits was even quoted as saying she was the most natural talent he’d ever encountered in drag racing.

Heart Like a Wheel was such a failure when it was released that the studio pulled it from rotation after just a week. But they recognized they’d marketed it wrong—as an action flick, and it’s only average as that goes—instead of the intensely personal, almost lonely, quest of a determined woman. After they changed the presentation, the film went on to a lengthy list of awards and rave reviews. All of which it deserves even today, as one of the better racing DVDs you’ll ever see—and you don’t even have to be a racing fan to appreciate that.

Type of Racing: Drag racing

Tracks: Englishtown, N.J.; Fonda (NY) drag strip; Pomona Fairgrounds; Indianapolis Raceway Park; others

Reel Racers: Bonnie Bedelia, Beau Bridges, Anthony Edwards, Hoyt Axton

Real Racers: Portrayed by actors

Year of Release: 1983, released as a special edition DVD 2006

DVD Length: 113 minutes

Approx. On-Track: 10 minutes

Color/B&W: Color

Watch for:

. . . When Shirley is seriously burned in a 1973 wreck, she remains conscious after the fire is put out. The camera shot, which moves in on the missing lens of her goggles—and the absolutely terrified look in that single eye—is one of the more effective moments in all of filmdom.

. . . Steve Evans conducts interviews. Even though it’s scripted, those few minutes are a reminder of the fact that the late Evans was one of the all-time knowledgeable and great television racing personalities.

. . . Kalitta dubs her “Cha Cha” because of her temper, and it was a very effective marketing tool as she climbed the ladder. But the truth was that she hated the moniker and tried to rid herself of it.

. . . Long before his acclaimed stint on TV’s E.R., Anthony Edwards plays Muldowney’s son John. Rahn Tobler is also on the team as crew chief, but the film doesn’t acknowledge his relationship with Shirley, which had already begun by the time the film was made. They married in 1988, filed for divorce in 2006. Jack Muldowney passed away in 2007.

. . . Shirley didn’t always get her way. She wanted Jamie Lee Curtis for the role. Later, she and Bedelia clashed over how to play the part. Bedelia was softer, more yielding, in fact, than Shirley wanted—but the movie critics ended up happier than the real deal.














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