Sometimes actors are gone from us too soon. We see it all over Hollywood history in everyone from James Dean to Heath Ledger. In one of the most famous cases, River Phoenix died in 1993 at only 23 years old. Always flush with talent, he gave us a few great performances in his short time: Stand by Me, his Oscar nominated turn in Running on Empty, and what many point to as his best role, in 1991’s My Own Private Idaho. But it’s his other 1991 role that has always been a favorite of mine, as young Marine Eddie Birdlace opposite the perpetually underrated Lili Taylor in Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight. I first saw this movie as a teenager, it came on one of the movie channels, and I was uncharacteristically sucked into it. It was vulnerable, quieter, and so much deeper than other romance movies I’d been exposed to. It has stuck in my mind ever since, and I was happy to revisit it recently.
Hidden Gems: Dogfight
By Kyle Lee
February 26, 2019
Set in 1963, just before the Kennedy assassination, Dogfight is the story of a group of four Marines set to ship off to Korea and then “a little country called Vietnam.” They decide to use their last night to hold a dogfight, a particularly cruel contest where they each pitch in some money, bring a date to a bar and the guy who brings the ugliest girl wins. Phoenix’s Eddie looks around town for a girl but eventually starts running out of time and charms coffeehouse waitress and aspiring poet Rose (Lili Taylor) into going with him. Rose is not ugly but plain, awkward, and shy. It’s actually she who feels sorry for him and agrees to go on the date. Eddie then begins having second thoughts just outside the bar, as Rose is a sweet, interesting girl. But when his buddies see him, he can’t back out and Eddie takes Rose into the bar where he proceeds to try and drink his guilt away.
Naturally, Rose will find out the true nature of the date, but the movie’s charm isn’t in standard tropes of watching these two fall in love and then the truth comes out to act as the thing to keep them apart before they finally reconcile and the music swells and credits roll. We’ve seen that from lesser movies over and over again. No, we get that stuff much earlier in this movie, and the real magic comes after Eddie convinces Rose to let him take her to dinner to make up for bringing her to the dogfight.
Rose’s decision to go back out with Eddie is occasionally a point of contention with some viewers. How, after being subjected to something so cruel, could Rose then trust Eddie enough to go out with him again? In the powerful scenes where Rose confronts Eddie, and then Eddie convinces Rose to go out again that night, we see that Rose isn’t a pushover. She isn’t “going along with it” the way that society at the time may have expected her to. Her kindness isn’t weakness. She has great amounts of empathy, sweetness, and anger. Eddie gets to see all of these sides of her. But I think she agrees to go out with him again because she can see that he is different than his Marine buddies. He isn’t the callous asshole that they are; he’s just been trying to conform. Rose is sensitive and perceptive enough to see the inner him that he is trying to not let out.
The dinner scene is one of my favorites, as we see Rose put Eddie in his place with his overuse of cursing and his childish beef with the snooty maitre d’ at the restaurant. And she is not mothering him into acting right so much as she’s letting him know that his immature shit won’t fly with her. He shapes up accordingly and we see the vulnerability and sweetness come out from underneath Eddie’s facade. Then the two begin to connect for real, and we are in for one of my favorite romance movies.
Dogfight is one of those quiet little movies that doesn’t shine because it has the greatest script or flashy cinematography or something (though those are both terrific). We are greatly aided by wonderfully subtle direction and command of tone from director Nancy Savoca, but this movie soars because of the casting of River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Phoenix has always been a revered actor, even during his life, for his ability to project toughness and sensitivity within a character, sometimes simultaneously. He was truly one of the great talents that we lost at too young an age. This is my favorite of his performances.
Lili Taylor came to mind after revisiting High Fidelity last month. In that she plays one of John Cusack’s top 5 loves of his life. There she’s too needy and beaten down by life for Cusack to hash out why their relationship failed. But here, a young 24, she is so engaging, funny, sweet, strong, and believably kind that we fall in love with her right alongside Eddie. Taylor has always been good, and she has worked endlessly, but she has never been better than she was in Dogfight. Both of these people are among the greatest romantic characters in cinema. This is one of those movies that make you mad at other movies for being so basic and uninteresting.
The ending doesn’t work for some people, but I loved it. Roger Ebert said you have to be a little bit idealistic for this movie to work, but I think you just have to have an empathetic and open heart. Many of River Phoenix’s roles have become sort of mythical since his early death (as always happens when an artist dies too young), but for some reason Dogfight has continued to be a Hidden Gem in his filmography. It deserves more love. It’s one of the screen's great romances, showcasing actors at the top of their game.