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Struggles to complete 'Heart,' 'Brainstorm' were worth it

By David Sterritt / October 27, 1983

New York

Two enjoyable new movies come from filmmakers with unusual track records. Jonathan Kaplan, director of Heart Like a Wheel, is a veteran of cheap action pictures that don't hint at the depth of his new film. Douglas Trumbull, maker of Brainstorm, is better known for special effects in other people's movies - including ''2001'' and ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind'' - than for his one previous feature, ''Silent Running,'' made back in 1971.

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Though both men have waited long to show what they're capable of, they display sure-fire talent in their new pictures. If there's any justice in Hollywood - a dubious proposition, I admit - they should now be launched on unstoppable careers.

Yet neither ''Heart'' nor ''Brainstorm'' has come smoothly into the world. ''Heart,'' too quirky for the usual marketing categories, was nearly shelved by its own distributor. ''Brainstorm'' was almost scrapped before it was even completed, after the accidental death of Natalie Wood, one of its stars.

So, as if making a first-rate feature weren't hard enough, both directors must now be apologists for their work. Kaplan insists that ''Heart'' will find an audience despite its offbeat material. Trumbull explains that the loss of a key actress didn't hurt the final shape of his movie.

Of the two pictures, ''Heart Like a Wheel'' is easiest to love. It's a ''bio-pic'' based on the life of Shirley Muldowney, the first woman to become a big-time drag racer. I know - the idea of a whole movie on drag racing sounds drab. But don't worry, I don't care a pin about cars or engines, and I enjoyed almost every scene of this rousing story about people and the endless, unpredictable changes they're always going through.

It begins with Shirley as a child, squirming in fear and excitement as her fast-driving daddy careens down a country road. Then we're in the '50s, the Flamingos are crooning ''doo-wop'' on the sound track, and teen-age Shirley - the only girl who's ever tried - is wiping the boy drivers right off the local track. She marries her high school flame, and they start inching toward drag-racing stardom.

The plot gets more complicated as the characters age. Shirley's success frightens her husband. She leaves him, finding new romance with a racing chum. Doors to success slam in her face because she's a woman. The new boyfriend turns out to be a philanderer. There's a big race and a nasty crash. And so on: familiar situations made fresh by unusual surroundings and heartfelt performances.

Since there is a real Shirley Muldowney, and she is a champion racer, there's not much suspense about how the movie will come out. This posed a problem for director Kaplan, as he confirmed over lunch with me the other day.

To liven things up, he determined to cram in as many human touches and emotional details as possible, so we'd care about the characters even when we know what's coming up. The effort worked, especially in some moving scenes with Shirley's son, and in her later encounters with that two-timing boyfriend, when a glance from star Bonnie Bedelia's face says more than five pages of dialogue could have.

According to Kaplan, this fine movie was almost abandoned by 20th Century-Fox because nobody could decide how to sell it - as a woman's picture, an action yarn, or a racing extravaganza. I understand the confusion, since ''Heart'' is all of the above, and yet something completely different, too. In any case, it is now edging its way into a few American cities after premiering at the New York Film Festival, and I hope viewers respond so it can spread its glow far and wide.

As for Kaplan, a graduate of Roger Corman's low-budget film factory, he has already spent years typecast as an action director, an exploitation hack, and a car-movie specialist - that last reputation earned at a time when he didn't even know how to drive. Again, he's really something very different. Here's hoping ''Heart Like a Wheel'' puts him on the map where he belongs.

High-tech drama

''Brainstorm'' should do the same for Douglas Trumbull, the high-tech wizard who has devised some of the most dazzling effects in science-fiction history. Though this is only his second movie as a director, it shows a visual assurance and a skill with performers that would be impressive in a filmmaker with far more experience. If its intellectual pretensions paid off equally well - which they don't, I'm afraid - this would be the fantasy epic of the year.