A friend of mine, a bicoastal TV writer, pointed out to me the other day that actors who win Oscars seem to disappear soon after. Whatever happened to Richard Dreyfuss? Jon Voight? Could Gene Hackman get so much as a guest shot on The Merv Griffin Show? What it is, my friend postulated, is that once an actor wins an Oscar, he becomes a big deal and decides he can make his own decisions. He makes all the wrong ones and ends up a loser.
Now comes Steve Tesich, not an actor, a writer—ergo, a very smart fellow. Emigrates to America from Yugoslavia when 13, graduates Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana and creates Breaking Away, for which he wins an Academy Award for screenwriting in 1980. Breaking Away was a tender, revealing and brilliantly insightful window on middle America. Notwithstanding the fact that the original Rocky and Chariots of Fire were exceptional sports films and had more memorable theme music, Breaking Away remains, for me, the finest sports movie of our time. O.K., so where does Tesich take his genius next? He does the screen adaptation for The World According to Garp—an absolute no-win job, but hey, O.K., he deserves a big payday. But then what? Well, with Hollywood at his feet, awash in choices, Tesich decides to write another movie about bicycles. This would be like Herman Melville going back to whales. Or Charles Dickens writing The Smurfs Meet Santa Claus right after A Christmas Carol.
Bicycles...again! I mean, to be honest, I was even skeptical about Breaking Away. I thought the bicycle quota in the movies had been pretty much used up when Paul Newman tooled around for a few minutes while B.J. Thomas sang Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head during Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Surely not another movie about bicycles! And Tesich's disaster, a soupy melodrama entitled American Flyers, not only suffers by comparison with Breaking Away, it simply suffers. I suffered. You will suffer.
The film revolves around two brothers. The younger, dopey one (David, played by David Grant) wears a dirty old bush hat all the time, as if it's a security blanket for the brain; he also rides bikes. The older, disagreeable one (Marcus, played by Kevin Costner) works at some sort of "sports clinic," which appears to be an athletic Disneyland for S & M types; he also rides bikes. Costner has the singular distinction of having played Alex in The Big Chill. If you don't remember him, that's because Alex was the one who committed suicide before the film began; scenes shot of him were cut from the movie. This, however, does earn Costner the honor of having had better lines as a dead man, as quoted by others, than here, where his character is allegedly alive.
The first half of American Flyers is devoted to a lot of fraternal flapdoodle, the second half to an interminable bike race in the Rocky Mountains in which nobody can catch his breath and everybody has to deal with Luca Bercovici, who plays a villainous racer named Barry (The Cannibal) Muzzin. I've seen more subtle, believable villains wrestling on the USA Network.
But I can say this for Flyers. It succeeds in one respect, namely, in showing us why bicycle racing is such an execrable spectator sport. I know, they absolutely love it in Europe—they also love unshaved female armpits in Europe. Bikes are fun to ride, but watching other people ride is borrrring.
The director, John Badham, who also directed Saturday Night Fever, does superb spoke work. Whenever at a loss as to what to do next, he sends the brothers off on a practice run and turns up the rock music on the sound track. Unfortunately, this time Badham cannot rely on John Travolta's dancing to save the movie.
There are two nice touches: a cute bit about making love to The Star-Spangled Banner, and a fat kid named Randolph (Doi Johnson), who longs to become the first black professional bowler. Whenever Randolph was on camera, stealing the film, I thought about how wonderfully he would have fit into Breaking Away. At least in this one bit part, the old Tesich touch is still visible. So let's hope that Tesich can get his bearings, get away from ball bearings and exhibit those wonderful powers of observation and wit again.
Breaking Away, you see, was a bicycle movie about America; Flyers is an American movie about bicycles.
Costner (left) beats out Bercovici on the race's first day, but the movie is not a winner.