Twenty years ago a little film with a big story to tell was released by Warner Brothers. The original marketing plan was to treat director Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight much as they had Driving Miss Daisy, another "special small movie." Telling the story of a marine’s last night in the U.S. before being shipped off to Vietnam in 1963 and the unlikely romance that sparks between him and the girl he brings with him to a "dogfight"; a contest wherein whichever man with the ugliest date wins. The marine, Eddie Birdlace played by River Phoenix and the girl, Rose played by Lili Taylor.
In casting River Phoenix, the studio was trying to capitalize on teen girls who all turned to jelly over the prospect of such a beautiful boy falling for a less than billboard-worthy girl. That was still a gamble considering the subject matter. The lead of Rose was written as a fat girl, and from early on was a part eyed by Ricki Lake, already having starred in John Waters’s Hairspray (1988). After five years and three different incarnations the role went to Taylor whose first role had been in another film from 1988, Mystic Pizza. Taylor, a slim and simple beauty donned extra padding to add to the idea of her being an untraditional beauty for Phoenix to fall for over the course of one evening in pre-hippie San Francisco.
It’s easy to look at 1963 and think how innocent it was compared to the times we live in now. Not just in the clothes but the music and the culture. Youth culture especially has changed dramatically. Even with Dogfight which centers on extreme, albeit subsurface cruelty there was a demure politeness that ran through those years (at least in how it’s presented in movies). However, there are a few timeless themes: young men have a rite of passage to indulge in machismo of some sort, and both men and women are encouraged to define themselves as an individual and to defend what they hold true. This is a film which explores those themes in bold strokes.
From the start of the film we are brought directly into Birdlace’s world by joining him and his fellow marines as they are bussed into San Francisco for one last wild night. As an issue of Playboy Magazine lands in his hands we first hear news of that evening’s proposed dogfight. Everyone wants in on the action the winner gets $100. Once they arrive at the bus station, the four Bs - Birdlace and his three closest buddies (Berzin, Benjamin, and Buell) he met in boot camp, line up and ready themselves for collecting dates for the show. They’re off trying to scoop up any slightly unattractive woman to secure their spot in the contest. Putting on their big boy pants these kids of around 18 years old sweet talk and convince a few unsuspecting women to accompany them. Birdlace strikes out, until he happens into Rose’s Coffee Shop. He notices Rose in the back corner, clumsily strumming her guitar while whispering lyrics over the tune. Immediately he starts in with precision, trying to make himself sound knowledgeable about folk music using the one "in" with her he can spot immediately; tactics like a used car salesman. From the moment Birdlace lays his eyes on Rose he becomes Romeo in a buzz cut, using his every charm, poised to ensnare Juliet in a frumpy waitress outfit. Rose is bursting out of her uniform, hair all a mess. He weaves in and out of lies to impress her and by the end of their conversation he has convinced her to accompany him to what he calls a "party." She ditches her responsibilities at her mother’s coffee shop and rushes upstairs to their apartment to prepare for her date.
We watch Rose as she thumbs through her wardrobe with childlike glee. She awkwardly pokes around at her hair, laying on the hairspray. A montage more common in an ’80s teen comedy than a thought-provoking venture as such. When she emerges to the street to reunite with Birdlace he is pleasantly surprised to see she has done herself no favors by wearing a loud yellow dress and arranging her hair similarly to a layer cake in height.
They set off to the scene of the crime and we begin to explore Rose via their conversation. In getting to know Rose we find that she has grand designs over that of her mother and grandmother who have run the coffee shop so diligently. "Her whole life is the coffee shop, I never want that," she says of her mother. Rose herself is a firm feminist obsessed with folk singers and musical freedom fighters, staunchly against the war that Birdlace is about to walk into.
As they arrive, he helps her apply lipstick and instead makes her look like a clown. It’s a hurtful scene, only stemmed by her innocent reply of "You put on lipstick about as good as I do." The tension broken, it’s in these few moments that he begins to see Rose as more than just an "it." Before they enter the bar he hesitates and tries to get her to skip the party. This is key for the audience, without this moment you wouldn’t be able to believe Birdlace later.
Once they get to their table he begins drinking incessantly and trying to get Rose to do the same. The officers both those who have brought dates and those judging the "contest" wear callow looks as they literally judge the women in their midst. As the evening progresses, the usual display of macho camaraderie plays back and forth between the marines via nicknames, general ribbing and swearing to which Rose calls attention. It’s wise to take stock of the fact that this pack of boys is an average age of 18 or 19 and taking on swearing, smoking and drinking is another way for them to assert on their supposed manhood.
Rose gets sick from all the alcohol she’s ingested and while cleaning herself up she overhears a fight between Birdlace’s best friend, Burzen (Richard Panebianco), and his date, Marcy (fringe genre player E.G. Daily). Here Rose finds out about the dogfight and immediately confronts Birdlace, unafraid to embarrass him publicly the way he did the women in the contest (even if unbeknownst to them). Birdlace is shell-shocked as she stalks off into the night. She comes home and sinks into her nightclothes and puts on Joan Baez’s "Silver Dagger." Rose is a typical teenager, she’s had a bad night and she sits in her room solemn, immersing herself in a song that at that moment sums up the whole of her existence. Eddie sneaks off from his pals and makes it to Rose’s window. We don’t get to see the moment of realization from there to here where he decides to make up this ruined night to her. He climbs to her second floor window and attaches a note scribbled on brown paper, it says "Sorry, pls (sic) meet in front, let’s go to dinner." Further displaying how young Eddie is, there is a sad face with tears streaming down out of the "o" of sorry. Even though he feels bad, this isn’t as deep for him as it is for Rose. She goes out front where she reminds him what a cad he is, and that she doesn’t understand the point of a dogfight and he shoots back with, "There’s a lot of shit I don’t understand either Rose, but I don’t apologize ever. And I came all the way back over here to do it." She agrees to try this night with him again.
When they try to go to a "suit jackets only" restaurant and are turned away by the maître d’, Birdlace is venomous as he schemes a way to show the man up. They concoct a lie to get a suit jacket from a local store and make their way back. Birdlace does everything he can to be loud and call out the maître d’. Rose interrogates him on why it’s so important to get back at everyone who makes him angry once they are seated. Birdlace lets his guard down and it’s clear that he has a very narrow point of view of the world while Rose’s is broader. It would seem as though Rose is the first person to ever challenge him in his life. Even in recounting the story of how he had his father sign off on his papers to join the marines it’s apparent he pushed off parental guidance and lacked discipline. Rose pushes many of his buttons over the course of the next few hours into the early morning; she challenges the standards which he holds to be law.
At one point they find themselves sitting on swings at a playground and there is a clear connotation that they aren’t that far removed from their own childhood. Birdlace firmly believes in shooting first and asking questions later while Rose is sure that music can change the world. Savoca herself noted that keeping these characters as teenagers (despite the studio’s prodding) was integral to the plot, "Otherwise, what’s this pacifist, aspiring folksinger doing with a Marine? If she were older she’d say ‘No fuckin’ way." (Premiere, October 1991) Here they are on the edge of oblivion as Vietnam is about to explode. They’re teenagers about to embark on a very adult playing field. They have no idea how much this evening and these words will play into the next few years of their lives. When they have their first embrace and consequent kiss, their motions are so awkward and it takes a painfully long time for them to make real contact. They’re 18; this is likely their first real date. They’re still kids themselves barely in control of their own bodies, let alone touching another’s.
He walks her home but instead of going their separate ways she invites him up and they sneak into her bedroom. To cut the awkward silence Rose asks him if he’d like to play a game. She starts to set it up and he declines, "I can’t play bingo Rose;" another strike of his macho self and assertion of adulthood. On opposite sides of her closet door they both prepare to share a bed, both sides equally unrefined. Their lovemaking starts with Bob Dylan’s "Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right" and you’re struck by how poignant this moment is. Maybe you’ve had a time where you stayed up all night to have fumbled touches in the early morning hours. The music behind them is a solemn reminder of this ripple in time where Birdlace and Rose exist. But there is much more tied to their interlude; in a matter of hours he will be on his way to Vietnam, no idea what lies ahead of him. But the audience knows the devastation he is willingly and proudly walking in to.
The next morning she kisses him off to the bus station, her address in his hand for correspondence. Once back with his friends on the bus, he makes up a story about spending the night with an officer’s wife in order to not have to admit where he had really been. In a quiet moment with his friend Burzen he tells the truth. Burzen also admits his lie he didn’t come about his dogfight win honestly, his date was a paid hooker. He looks at him and says, "How did we become these fucking idiots?" and there’s recognition of this ultra-masculine façade they are forced to wear as young men and as marines. In that moment he has admitted to their, and in turn his own, cowardice, yet he rips up Rose’s address and throws it out the window.
Three years later, Birdlace is back from the war and gets off a bus in San Francisco. After some hesitation he walks into Rose’s Coffee Shop and she comes to him. They say hello and embrace. A silent, "I need you, and you need me," is in the air. Eddie is a changed man; he has seen there was truth in those things Rose said years earlier. The film fades out on this hold.
Dogfight is a love story, but not in a traditional sense. It’s heartbreaking too, but not in a traditional sense either. Dogfight comes in slowly, builds to an emotional crescendo and brings us back down to a calm fade. You could call it a tale of cruel misogyny or one of an innocent love but it’s both of those in varying degrees. Intertwined with both themes though is an overriding motif nestled in those things we say and do when we’re young and so firm in our beliefs. If there had been a sequel or a continuation to the film, what more could we possibly have learned about those three years between when we first meet Rose and Birdlace and when we leave them that isn’t relayed in that final moment?