Bonny Bedelia is Shirley Muldowney, a woman from New York state who becomes an award-winning drag racer. I don't know what formula the cars belong to but it's easy to recognize the formula of the movie.
If there's a formulaic moment that isn't included, I must have blinked. Bedelia shows an early interest in getting into the seat of the queer-looking dragster her husband, Leo Rossi, has built as a kind of hobby. But she proves to be a pretty good driver and as she wins an increasing number of contests locally she begins to neglect what Rossi sees as her wifely duties.
All the men at the race track seem to make fun of her, as does the announcer over the PA system.
Meanwhile, there's another man, Beau Bridges, a fellow driver. He's a happy-go-lucky, affable fellow, and I thought at first that he would become one of those saviors who shows up from time to time to rescue the damsel from some crisis before disappearing again until the next crisis, but actually he plays a more important role as the lover she acquires after leaving her husband.
And, man, does Leo Rossi deserve leaving. The script turns him into a Formula I masculine villain. Jealous of his wife's success, jealous of her celebrity and talent, he begins to drink excessively and pretty soon we have the drunken, wife-abusing husband. So she leaves him and flees to the welcoming arms of the more understanding Bridges. When Bridges is suspended from driving, she makes him her crew chief.
Sadly, Bridges is already married but that doesn't stop Bedelia from falling in love with him. The fact that she's not the only "other woman" in his life does manage to shake her a bit, though it doesn't stop her from going on to the ultimate triumph.
The men in her life are all weaklings and brutes but she prevails through the strength of her will and her love of driving cars at high speed. Well, I suppose Bedelia's father is not a bad guy, but he's there chiefly to provide the funeral that interrupts her rise to fame. You never know. Tragedy may lie just around the corner.
The thought kept occurring to me: How easy it would be to turn Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney into an exploitative and self-indulgent witch. It would still be "based on a true story" if she were to be possessed by hubris to the extent that she outgrew her schlub of a husband in New York and left him flat for a man, Bridges, who would be of more use to her. If it breaks up his marriage, so what? She needs him for her crew chief and lover.
But it's not that kind of movie. Not at all. It's the story of a woman who succeeds despite all the obstacles strewn in her path by an arrogant patriarchal society. She's propelled by her love of drag racing, although there is curiously little attention paid to her feelings about driving. There IS plenty of footage about the drag races themselves. Engines are noisily gunned; cars burn rubber and often crack up or burst into flaming comets without the bother of any noisome explanations. That, presumably, is to keep the men in the audience from falling asleep during the prolonged romantic conflicts. The races have little drama because, after all, drag races only last a few seconds.
The musical score is mostly of the period and people who grew up in the 60s and 70s should enjoy the pop songs. Before, during, and after Bedelia's triumphs on the track, the score turns airily inspirational, lacking only a heavenly choir.
I rather enjoyed it the first time I saw it, but I was younger then and my heart may have been more like a wheel. Now it looks dated and in some ways irritatingly generic. It's one of those "Firsts" movies. Lindbergh was the first to fly the Atlantic solo, so there's a movie about him. There's a June Allyson movie about one of the first women doctors. There's a movie about the first African-American to graduate from West Point, a movie about the first American astronauts, about the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, about Columbus, about the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air, about the first man to get the idea of the intermittent windshield wiper. This is about the first woman to achieve national recognition as a drag racer.
No problem with Bonny Bedelia's performance, though. She's more than good enough in a stereotyped role. Leo Rossi certainly looks right as the envious husband. Bill McKinney can be seen briefly as a more than usually easy-going King Of The Track. And Dick Miller, he of the jutting chin, is always welcome.
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