Dogfight (1991): Nancy Savoca (True Love) Second Feature, Starring Lili Taylor and River Phoenix

In her second film, Dogfight, a follow-up to True Love, Nancy Savoca again explores sexual politics, this time focusing an unattractive girl–a type rarely seen in mainstream films.

Grade: C (**1/2 out of *****)

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Theatrical release poster

Questioning standards of beauty, Dogfight is about an exceedingly cruel set-up (hence the title), based on an old Marine ritual in which each participant contributes money to a pot, and the winner is the man who shows up with the ugliest date.

This “dogfight” takes place in San Francisco, the night before a bunch of Marines is shipped out to Vietnam. Capturing the naivete of the early 1960s, the film is a tender examination of the evolving romance between Eddie Birdplace (River Phoenix) and his “date,” Rose Fenney (Lili Taylor). Savoca fleshes out Rose’s experience of the events, as she struggles to salvage her dignity. Both Rose and Eddie are seen as victims of societal conceptions of femininity and masculinity.

Savoca plays for laughs the scenes in which Eddie and his pals search for their “dog.” There’s a lovely scene early on, in which Rose gets ready for the date, putting on her nicest dress and discreet makeup, while Eddie tries to trick her into smearing lipstick over her face. Savoca also puts her signature as a female director on the sex scene, which is presented with characteristic attention to detail. The scene lingers on such “proasic” issues as when and where you get undressed on your first date, issues that Hollywood movies never bother with.

Savoca orchestrates a radical shift in the audience’s perception. Rose begins as an ugly, gullible, duped woman facing heartbreaking cruelty, but by the end of the film, she’s perceived as beautiful, but not in the fake manner of the Australian Cinderella tale, Muriel’s Wedding, in which a fat girl (Tony Collette) transforms into a winning beauty. In Dogfight, it is Rose’s gracious personality which emerges triumphant.

Despite good elements, Savoca misdirects the film with the kind of pathos that encourages viewers to feel sorry for its characters, first for Rose, then for Eddie. The performances of both Lili Taylor and River Phoenix were exceptional, but the movie would have worked better if it were cast with a truly unattractive woman; Taylor is too appealing for the part. Savoca overidealizes Rose, making her a spiritual woman with pacifist philosophy and liberal politics. In forgiving Eddie, Rose relieves him of the last traces of his Marine machoism and misdirected rage.

Dogfight was released by Warners, which didn’t know how to market it since it was basically an independent feature about an unusual subject.

The film was met with unfavorable reviews and even poorer commercial prospects, earning less than 400,000 at the box-office.

River Phoenix as Eddie Birdlace
Lili Taylor as Rose Fenny
E.G. Daily as Marcie
Richard Panebianco as Berzin
Anthony Clark as Oakie, one of Birdlace’s Marine friends
Mitchell Whitfield as Benjamin, one of Birdlace’s Marine friends
Holly Near as Rose’s mother
Brendan Fraser as a sailor who gets into a fight with the Marines

Directed by Nancy Savoca
Produced by Richard Guay, Peter Newman
Written by Bob Comfort
Music by Sarah Class, Mason Daring
Cinematography Bobby Bukowski
Edited by John Tintori
Distributed by Warner

Release date: September 13, 1991

Running time: 93 minutes
Box office $394,631