MEET THE READER: A Look Back at the Oscar-Winning Screenplay for Breaking Away

Steve Tesich won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on Breaking Away. Script Reader Ray Morton points out the shining moments in the film's screenplay.
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Steve Tesich won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on Breaking Away. Script Reader Ray Morton points out the shining moments in the film's screenplay.

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On Thursday, September 12, 2019 I attended a fortieth anniversary screening of one of my all-time favorite films: Breaking Away. The screening was presented by the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood and was followed by a q & a with cast members Dennis Christopher, Daniel Stern, Paul Dooley, and Hart Bochner. It was a great evening.

For those who haven’t seen it, Breaking Away is the story of Dave Stohler (Christopher), a recent high school graduate from Bloomington, Indiana. Dave is a competitive bike rider who so admires the Italian members of the Cinzano bike-riding team who are the undisputed kings of the sport that he starts pretending to be Italian himself. Dave and his good friends Cyril (Stern), Mike (Dennis Quaid), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) are all the working-class sons of the blue-collar stonecutters who used to work in Bloomington’s now-closed limestone quarries. Dave and his buddies become involved in an escalating series of conflicts with a group of snobby, upper-class students from Indiana University Bloomington, the institution of higher learning that fuels the town's economic life but consigns the locals to second class citizenship. The snobby students, led by frat boy Rod (Bochner), derisively refer to the locals as “cutters” (short for stonecutters). As Dave romances Rod’s girlfriend Kathy (Robyn Douglass) by posing as an Italian exchange student, the conflicts between the town kids and the college kids eventually escalate to the point where they wind up competing against each other in the University’s famed “Little 500” bicycle race.

Produced and directed by British filmmaker Peter Yates (Bullit, The Deep), Breaking Away is a wonderful film. It starts out in a very low and quiet key, then builds steadily towards an exciting, inspiring climax that had the 2019 audience at the Egyptian cheering just as enthusiastically as the film’s original viewers did back in 1979.

The movie is filled with wonderful performances—the young cast members are all terrific and are marvelously supported by Barbara Barrie as Dave’s serenely encouraging mother and Dooley, who steals the movie as Dave’s increasingly exasperated dad. The lyrical photography by Matthew F. Leonetti, the pitch-perfect editing by Cynthia Scheider, and the music by Patrick Williams (adapting numerous Italian-themed classical pieces) all combine with the direction and acting to create a dramatic, funny, warm, uplifting, and highly entertaining tribute to middle-American life.

As great as all of these components are—and they are great—the film’s standout element is its screenplay by the late Steve Tesich.

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Born Stojan Tešić in 1942 in Yugoslavia, the Serbian Tesich immigrated to the United States when he was fourteen years old. He attended Indiana University Bloomington on a wrestling scholarship, but eventually joined the school’s bicycle team and eventually rode in the Little 500. After graduating in 1965, Tesich moved to New York to attend grad school at Columbia University. After Columbia, he became a welfare caseworker in Brooklyn and began writing plays. Several of his plays were produced Off-Broadway to great acclaim and before long Hollywood came calling. Tesich wrote five unproduced screenplays, one of which was titled The Eagle of Naptown. Eagle was about a young bike rider from Indianapolis who dreams of being Italian and eventually rides in and wins the Little 500. Another of Tesich’s unproduced scripts was about four working class teens who clash with the wealthy students from a nearby university. Yates, who had directed one of Tesich’s plays, suggested he combine the two scripts into one. The result was Bambino, which began production in the summer of 1978 and was eventually retitled Breaking Away.

There is so much to admire in Tesich’s screenplay:

  • The character of Dave Stohler—the bicyclist who dreams of being Italian—is a terrific creation. Inspired by a teammate of Tesich’s who loved to sing Italian arias while cycling, Dave is a very original character—we’ve seen dreamers on film before, but not one with these specific dreams pursued in these specific ways. He’s also quite appealing and very relatable (who among us has not pined after someone we can’t have or had big dreams that we’re not sure will ever come true?). In creating Dave, Tesich brought forth a likeable hero we both can and want to root for, qualities that are only enhanced by Dennis Christopher’s marvelous performance.
  • The script tells a really good story—Dave’s quest to become a great bicycle racer, to become Italian, and to win the girl and the Cutters’ battles with Rod and their eventual triumph over him and his frat brothers in the Little 500 all combine into one heck of an entertaining yarn and Tesich goes all out to milk the final race for all of the David vs. Goliath drama and excitement he possibly can. The narrative employs both the typical underdogs vs. super-athlete sports movie template and the typical trying-to-hang-on-to-the-past-before-finally-realizing-its-time-to-let-go template of the usual coming-of-age movie. It therefore sometimes flirts with the tropes of both genres, but Tesich mostly keeps these formulaic elements from tipping over into cliché by either grounding them firmly in reality (and thus giving them a logic and believability missing from most dramatic clichés) or by putting spins on the tropes that are clever enough to allow them to feel fresh again. The stakes in the story aren’t massive—the fate of the world does not hang in the balance and the course of history will not be changed by anything that happens in the movie. Instead, the matters at hand are small-scale and personal, concerning issues of pride, dignity, and self-respect; worries about one’s future and the future of one’s children; dreams vs. reality; and the desire for and pursuit of love. None of these matters are earth-shattering in their impact or import, but they matter intensely to the story’s characters and thus they matter intensely to us.
  • In addition to Dave, the rest of Breaking Away’s main characters—Mike, Cyril, and Moocher; Dave’s mom and dad; and Kathy, the girl of Dave’s dreams—are also very strong. All of script’s people are engagingly quirky, interesting, and three-dimensional. Even stock characters such as frat boy Rod are given a little extra shading that elevates them beyond the rote (in Rod’s case, it is the concern he shows for Mike after the young Cutter in injured in the course of an impromptu swimming competition between the two rivals). The supporting characters and bit parts are equally memorable. All of the characters have problems and flaws, but all are essentially decent and sympathetic (which makes a nice comparison to the characters in many present-day movies and TV series who are so damaged, dark, and flawed that they become off-putting).
  • The dialogue is terrific—each person in the screenplay speaks with his/her own unique voice that perfectly embodies and illustrates their specific character. The dialogue is full of marvelous, character-generated humor and perfectly reflects the rhythms and tones of middle-American speech, an example of Tesich’s talent made even more remarkable by the fact that the author did not begin speaking English until he was well into his teens.
  • The script is warm and human and filled with a generosity of spirit towards all of its characters. It is optimistic without being Pollyannaish and it is blessedly free of cynicism and mean-spiritedness. It is also wonderfully funny.
  • Breaking Away is distinctly American piece. Its themes and ideas accurately reflect American concerns and ideas and its aspirational spirit accurately reflects the can-do, anything-is-possible attitude of the country when it is as its best. The script and movie also presents a clear-eyed view of the class differences in American society that Americans themselves often fail to recognize or acknowledge. And the fact that this most American of films was written, produced and directed by immigrants is perhaps the most American thing about it.

Steve Tesich won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on Breaking Away. He went on to adapt the movie into a short-lived (1980-81) television series, wrote more screenplays (including Eyewitness [1981], Four Friends [1981], and The World According to Garp [1982]), more plays, and several novels before sadly dying of a heart attack in 1996 at the age of 53.

Since the first time I saw it, Breaking Away has been one of my favorite films. Initially I liked it just because it was a very good movie—one that entertained me and that I connected and identified with on several levels. As the year went on and I rewatched the movie many times and learned more about filmmaking, I recognized that it was also a great piece of cinema on many levels, especially in its screenplay.

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And so, Breaking Away has long been one of my all-time favorite scripts as well. Not because it is especially innovative in form or content, because it’s not. But after years of reading scripts that have bent over backwards to tell “edgy” stories in unconventional ways, such things don’t matter to me as much as they once did (primarily because in most cases I find that so much of the writer’s energy has gone into being different that she/he has forgets to create characters and stories for us to care about and invest in). Instead, I admire it for telling a good story very well, for populating it with characters I like and care about, and for investing every aspect of the piece with the depth and detail required to lift it far above the routine and into the realm of the memorable. Mostly, I admire it for moving me emotionally—for making me care, for making me laugh, for causing me to cheer, and for allowing me to walk out of the theater, feeling inspired. The ability to move an audience has become my most important criteria for evaluating a screenplay and a film. Steve Tesich accomplished this, and so did Peter Yates, the cast and the crew. Bravissimo!

If you haven’t seen Breaking Away, check it out. And if you have seen it, check it out again. In either case, you won’t be disappointed.

THE END 

Copyright © 2019 by Ray Morton
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