Length: 94 minutes
Director: Nancy Savoca (Household Saints; If These Walls Could Talk)
Writer: Bob Comfort (Good Luck)
Starring: River Phoenix, Lili Taylor, Brendan Fraser, Mitchell Whitfield, Anthony Clark, Richard Panebianco, E.G. Daily, Ron Lynch
“Dogfight” is one of the most sadly overlooked indie gems of the 1990’s. While River Phoenix had gotten praise (and an Oscar nomination) for “Running on Empty” and for the overrated “My Own Private Idaho”, he gives the best performance of his too short career here. As does indie veteran Lili Taylor. It’s such a sweet and wonderful movie that it’s a wonder that it hasn’t gained a cult audience. It has just become another shamefully hidden treasure. Upon it’s release in 1991, it only opened in only two theaters. I remember seeing a glowing review on “Siskel & Ebert” and then it was quietly released on video where it probably ended up on the previously viewed shelf for sale soon after. If you get a chance to see this movie, do yourself a favor and do so. Yes it’s kind of a romantic picture, but it’s not a chick flick, though girls will most likely enjoy it (if they can get past the R rated language- which inspires a very funny sequence in a fancy restaurant). It’s set in 1963 and Phoenix stars as Eddie Birdlace, a young kid who along with his three friends- all together dubbed the four “B”s- Berzin (Richard Panebianco), Oakie (Anthony Clark) and Benjamin (Mitchell Whitfield) are on the eve of being shipped off to Vietnam- prior to it becoming Vietnam. As Birdlace later explains to his date, “We’re going to go for a few months, have a few laughs, and then come back”, unaware of the hell that awaits him and his friends. They decide to spend their last evening, waiting to ship off in San Francisco, by staging a “dogfight”. Not the Michael Vick kind, but a cruel contest where the sailors try to find the ugliest date and bring them to a club where they are judged and the winner gets a wad of cash. Berzin cheats by hiring a sure winner prostitute (E.G. Daily- Dottie in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”) with a set of removable front teeth. Clueless, the others scamper to find competition. Birdlace desperately settles on a bashful waitress in a diner named Rose (Taylor). When he first sees her, she is alone in the corner strumming an acoustic guitar. He asks her what music she likes, she lists off Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and he bullshits his way into getting her to accept a date. He waits outside while she gets ready and is annoyed to discover when she comes out to the car that she has dressed herself up to be actually pretty. They go to the dogfight and Rose ends up winning honorable mention because she drinks too much and throws up. She overhears the prostitute arguing with Berzin about her cut of the winnings and slaps Birdlace and storms out. Instead of spending the rest of the evening in drunken escapades with his friends, Birdlace tracks Rose back down and insists on making the night up to her. He explains to her that he tried to get her to leave the contest because he actually liked her. They spend the evening together dining out, walking, and getting to know each other. The screenplay is so sharp and the performances so strong that there is never a dull moment. The movie feels so right and personal that by the end of the movie you feel like you know the characters personally. The director, Nancy Savoca (making her debut), makes a brave decision and continues the movie after Birdlace returns from Vietnam, providing one of the most tender, heartbreaking conclusions I’ve ever seen. I think back to all of the indie movies that tried too hard that got too much attention in the ‘90’s and how “Dogfight” is better than most of them put together. Something tells me if River Phoenix were around today, he’d say this was his favorite out of all his movies. It’s a terrible tragedy that he isn’t around for us to find out for sure.