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    Tesich's Breakout

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Born 74 years ago today, Yugoslavian-born playwright/novelist/screenwriter Steve Tesich (1942-1996) wrote warmly woolly and cuttingly caustic comedies for the stage (Passing Game, Nourish the Beast, Division Street) and in the six films he scripted across a seven-year period made a specialty of outsiders, striving for success in career, reaching out for romance, repairing family relationships or just plain survival, who shake a fist at the cruelties of fate and press on to the finish line, even if in some cases, tragedy awaits. The directors with whom he worked – Peter Yates three times, and once each with Arthur Penn, George Roy Hill and John Badham – each connected uniquely with Tesich’s affinity, as an assimilated immigrant forging an unsteady path in the turbulence of a bustling America, to create strong, flawed and relatable characters through performances by rising acting talents of the period. Two titles, The World According to Garp (1982, directed by Hill) and Eleni (1985, directed by Yates), were revelatory adaptations of their respective original source authors John Irving and Nicholas Gage, while the other four rose out of Tesich’s own movie love and personal provenance. One was an expertly crafted New York thriller (1981’s Eyewitness, directed by Yates), another a chaotic but magically moving tale of an immigrant’s turbulent counterculture experiences (1981’s Four Friends, directed by Penn) and a propulsive tale of a cross-country bike tourney that draws two competing brothers together (1985’s American Flyers, directed by Badham). However, it was the first Tesich screenplay out of the gate that included so much of himself and his blinkered but steadfast affection for his adopted land that would prove the most enduring and would lay the foundation for the five to follow: the singular and triumphant Breaking Away (1979, directed by Yates), set in the environs of Bloomington, Indiana, where Tesich grew up. An alumnus of both Indiana University Bloomington and competitive bicycling, Tesich wove elements of his Midwestern upbringing into the appealing and life-affirming tale of four working-class high school graduates (played to perfection by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) who engineer a boost to their nowhere “townie” lives by plugging in to the naively optimistic Christopher’s dreams of cycling excellence and forming a squad to compete in the Little 500 race, pitting them against the snooty, well-to-do regional college athletes who seem to have it all. It’s an underdog story of grace, humor and generosity that seemed to pour out of Tesich, and the critical and audience reaction sensed it; The New York Times’ Janet Maslin proclaimed: “The cast is unknown, the director has a spotty history, and the basic premise falls into this year's most hackneyed category... the finished product is wonderful. Here is a movie so fresh and funny it didn't even need a big budget or a pedigree.” His efforts scored in a big way, winning the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award® and similar honors from the Writers Guild of America, New York and National Society of Film Critics and the London Critics Circle. Breaking Away, available on a thrilling Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, is itself worth a birthday glass of vino to toast its author (who regrettably died at a relatively young 53) but also as the opening salvo in a series of smart, engaging movie writing opportunities to come.