Female Filmmaker Friday: Dogfight, 1991 (dir. Nancy Savoca)
I first saw this film last summer and was shocked that I had never seen it before. It’s so my kind of film, but somehow over the years it slipped past my radar. It’s one of those films that is insanely touching, without once ever being schmaltzy. This post is spoilery.
The film begins on November 21st, 1963 – the night before JFK is assassinated. River Phoenix plays Eddie Birdlace, a Marine on his way to a dogfight – a party where all the Marines try to bring the ugliest date – without the girls knowing.
He meets Rose (Lili Taylor) at her mother’s coffee shop and begins to charm her. She’s a sharp cookie and she’s suspicious of him right away, as she’s well aware that she is plain and a little awkward. Eventually, his charm wins out and she decides to go with him. I love that she looks like a real girl, not a movie version of a real girl. She’s been working who knows how many hours at a diner and she looks it!
I love this scene so much because it’s so true to how girls get ready for a big date. She tries on several dresses, she teases her hair (it’s 1963, remember), she uses practically a whole can of hairspray. But all of her actions show how she’s feeling – excited, scared, unsure. It’s all there in her face.
Walking to the party Rose begins to tell Eddie a little about herself. She loves Bob Dylan and the folk scene, she hopes to be a folk singer and change the world. Eddie, in turn, starts to have second thoughts about bringing her to the dogfight, but before he can convince her to go elsewhere, they run into one of his Marin buddies and it’s too late.
Rose drinks too much (it’s clear she’s not used to drinking or going out much at all), finding herself ill in the restroom. There she runs into one of the other girls (played by Elizabeth Daily!), who as it happens is a ringer – a prostitute hired by one of the guys to be extra ugly so he can win. What’s never really explained in the film is why this is a thing the guys do. Why get their kicks be belittling women in their most vulnerable asset? There’s a lot to be said about the value our culture puts on beauty – especially in women. These boys don’t seem to care how cruel they are being, probably because ugly girls don’t have feelings, right? Or if they do, it doesn’t matter because who cares about ugly girls? Naturally, Rose in incensed.
She rips him a new one, but good. She’s not insecure – probably like most of the girls who these guys bring to these parties. Which could be another reason the guys prey on them – an insecure girl is less of a threat to their manhood. I can’t remember now if Rose punches him or not, but boy I hope she does. She’s not a violent person, but sometimes you just need to punch someone.
Eddie manages to convince Rose let him have a second chance. She’s extra cautious this time, but he seems sincere. They go to a super fancy restaurant and after much cajoling get a table. Eddie, being a Marine, swears a lot and this bothers Rose throughout the film. Eventually, she’s had enough and to prove a point she orders everything at the restaurant using very colorful language. It’s a delightful scene, as both the waiter and Eddie are shocked that she even knows these words, let alone that she’s using them so perfectly. Eddie starts to see that there’s more to Rose – indeed more to any woman – than just her looks. Probably, he’d never bothered to spend any amount of time with a woman before.
The night turns from awkward, to really sweet, with both Eddie and Rose opening up about themselves, their hopes for the future – for themselves and the country. Rose takes Eddie to a folk singer club where she hopes to play someday. Eddie tells her he’s heading off to Vietnam the next day. This is before the conflict got so bad there were protests, etc. So we the audience know how bad things are going to be for Eddie and Rose, but they’re still just two kids with the whole world in front of them. Eddie becomes to enthralled by his time with Rose, that he forgets to meet up with his buddies to get matching tattoos.
Rose eventually takes Eddie back to her place to listen to some records. It’s a sweet scene, with the two both seeing the potential in each other’s company, both realizing that their time is limited. This leads to one of the best, most honest two people having sex for the first time, not really knowing what they’re doing, fumbling and connecting. It’s incredibly endearing.
Lili Taylor’s performance is one of the best I’ve ever seen. How she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for this performance either speaks to the greatness of 1991, or how under-seen this film was. She’s natural and un-self-conscious, full of grace and confidence. This is the kind of performance that in the late-1970s would have shot an actress to instant stardom (think Jill Clayburgh, Diane Keaton). Unfortunately, in 1991 I guess it was just too good. Actually, Lili Taylor is one of those actresses who is constantly superb, but rarely lauded beyond glowing critical praise. We’ll look back on her career and scratch our collective heads at her lack of stardom and awards. What I really love about their encounter is that Rose is always in control of her actions. From the beginning Rose does what she does because she decides to take a chance. As charming as Eddie is, she could have resisted his charms if she’d wanted.
It’s Eddie who learns from Rose and it’s Eddie who changes the most. In a lot of films, after a sexual encounter of this type, the girl’s world has been opened up, the girl’s life has changed forever, the girl can never forget the guy. It’s clear in this case that while both characters have been changed for the better, it’s Rose who had the greatest impact on Eddie.
The film then cuts to the next day – JFK is assassinated, Rose’s hope for the future crushed with it. We see Eddie and his friends in Vietnam, in the thick of it. We then cut to 1966, where we see how San Francisco has changed – hippies and protestors fill the streets. Eddie, injured and his buddies presumably killed, limps through a town he once knew that is now completely unfamiliar. Instead of going straight back to Rose, he goes into a bar for a drink. The tension in this scene is killer. Will he go in? Will Nancy Savoca end it before our lovers reunite? Half glass empty?
Half glass full! Eddie does finally make it back to Rose. But instead of the traditionally lovers running into each other’s arms, we first get a shared look of recognition. Rose is surprised to see him again after three years of silence. Eddie seems equally confused about why of all places, he’s come to here – to Rose, a woman he only knew briefly. The two embrace, but it’s left unclear whether it’s in friendship or if there’s still hope of something more.