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When I was coming of age in a small one-horse town in the Deep South I idolized the actor of my generation, River Phoenix. No, wait; chalk that: I looked up to his portrayal of a troubled youth in Rob Reiner’s classic Stand By Me. I was thirteen in 1986 when the movie came out and even at that young of an age I knew that there was a difference between the character of Chris Chambers and River himself. All that aside, River’s deeply nuanced performance (at just fifteen!) of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who sets out on a trek to find a body with his three best friends was a career making performance that set him off on a Hollywood odyssey that spanned thirteen completed films over the course of just seven years. The kid left a wide swath through the Hollywood industry and disappeared as abruptly as it seemed he showed up, leaving behind a generation of his peers and contemporaries who, twenty five years after his untimely passing, are still attempting to catch up with that indefinable something that encompassed his understated acting.
A movie from River in the late 1980s and early 1990s was, to me, like a newly discovered letter from an old friend who would periodically catch me up with what was going on in his life: The Mosquito Coast, Running On Empty (for which he received his one and only Oscar nomination), Dogfight and My Own Private Idaho were all like Reports From the Front to this burgeoning film fan who was only beginning to discover the joys of the long and rich history of the medium. River was one of us, the so-called Generation X who had infiltrated the closed ranks of moviedom and who was now gleefully and mirthfully turning the industry on its proverbial ear through extremely subversive and atypical career choices and layered performances.
What felt like a real and fresh change in this creative medium brought about by a true Hollywood outsider – Phoenix and his family were true Hippies and one of the better examples to emerge from the hazy and smoke filled days of 1960s “flower power” – came to an all-too abrupt end on October 31, 1993 outside West Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room. There in the early morning hours on a cold sidewalk outside the club where he had come to listen to and play music, River Phoenix passed away from a still-mysterious drug overdose. He was only twenty three years old.
His sudden passing shook me to my core; just months before River’s death I had lost my grandfather to cancer and, as hard of a blow as that was and as much as I loved him, I had difficulty processing the emotion of that loss until I learned through a discarded newspaper about River’s own end. States and thousands of miles away from my grandfather at the time he died, I had felt emotionally cut off from the death of our family patriarch. Now with his own death, River had given me one final and bittersweet gift that meant more to me than any superlative piece of film work he had left behind: River Phoenix shocked me out of my inability to properly grieve for my lost grandfather and for the first time I sat down and cried my twenty year old heart out. I grieved for my grandfather whom I had spent so much of my formative years with growing up; I grieved for River Phoenix and his untimely departure and most of all I cried for all of the years that could and should have been but now no longer were.
In a way, much like Stand By Me, it was my own coming of age. A new day had already dawned for me full of change and new rules and, like most of us who experience such a thing, it had sprung upon me suddenly and had already slipped away before I could grasp the enormity of the New World I suddenly found myself in. Who says that life doesn’t imitate art?
Years later, when I found myself at an impasse in between writing gigs, I recalled those dark and golden days of my own youth and began to reminisce on my profound admiration for River Phoenix. This young actor, really only a kid, had meant so much to me. I decided that I wanted to give back to my memory of him and thank him, belatedly for all that his work had meant to me.
By that point in time, several biographies had already been written on River and I knew that I didn’t want to walk that old and tired path that had become overgrown with rumors, innuendo and – in some instances – flat out fabrications. But I still wanted to write something substantive and lengthy regarding River. This book project demanded a different sort of spin and it needed to be good. This was an overdue letter of “thanks” to one of my heroes. I wanted it to be worthwhile. After all, I had a lot to say to River.
What I ultimately settled on was a book that would generally be about River Phoenix but would more specifically be about a tiny, blink and you miss it film that River headlined in 1991 with actress Lili Taylor called Dogfight.
Based off a Bob Comfort script, Dogfight centers around a group of four marines in 1963 who have a twenty four hour shore leave before being shipped out overseas. They spend this time participating in what is unceremoniously known as a “dogfight,” a contest where the marines attempt to find the “ugliest” dates they can and then parade them out unawares at a dance where the marine with the most unbecoming girl wins prize money.
How awful, right? The caveat and the hook as it turns out is that one of the four marines (played by River) develops feelings for the girl he picks for the dogfight (Taylor). What follows is a charming boy meets girl story set over the course of one evening in San Francisco where the two walk and talk and realize they have a lot more in common than they – or we, the audience – first realizes. Think of this it as something of a blueprint for Richard Linklater’s subsequent Before films, the difference being that Dogfight is a remarkable one on-one-off story that lives and breathes over the course of one movie versus three. It’s an economical yet inventive love story breathtakingly rendered by Comfort and director Nancy Savoca, full of piss and vinegar and a whole passel full of love. So naturally it bombed when Warner Brothers quietly released it to a handful of theaters in 1991.
For my money this was a tour de force film from all quarters; from Bob Comfort who wrote a crackerjack of a script, to Nancy Savoca who brought a sensibility and non-maudlin gentleness to the sometimes harsh material that was spellbinding, to the fragile and honest acting from its two leads that was nothing short of endearing and captivating. My Own Private Idaho may have been considered by many in Hollywood to be River Phoenix’ most beautiful and achingly acted performance. Yet, Dogfight that stands out as the best overall film a young Phoenix starred in, a true indicator of just how deep his waters ran and a signpost that put future directors and producers on notice that the kid had range to spare; the Oscar nomination for Running On Empty was no fluke.
It was for those reasons and more that I decided to undertake a book that would be a celebration not only of River Phoenix, but also of the remarkable group of actors and industry professionals who banded together to make this little slice-of-life movie. I wanted to go on a journey where I would learn more about River through the making of this special gem and I was excited to invite a reading audience to travel along with me. This book would stand apart from the usual run of the mill bios and articles (some of ‘em good, some of ‘em pretty awful) by studying River Phoenix the artist and the work he committed to celluloid. No tawdry dissection of National Enquirer rumors here, thank you very much.
The Fight for Dogfight
I began work on the book by interviewing many of the “day players”, actors whose parts in the film were small enough where they were only needed for one-two shooting days. From there it was just a small jump to some of the more established character actors who decorated many of the scenes in Dogfight and who helped Nancy Savoca in bringing 1963 San Francisco to life. A few smaller minded individuals in Hollywood seemed unfazed and generally malaise-like when I would rattle off the list of character actors involved in the movie that I had reached out to and scored insightful and meaningful memories from over an eight month period, but I didn’t care: These were top-notch and consummate actors whose voluminous work resumes spoke louder than any apathetic and dry summations from shortsighted studio bean counters ever would. I knew that the book would come to life in part through the recollections of these talented individuals that had placed their trust in me. I would not let them down.
A bulk of the filming of Dogfight took place in Seattle, Washington which doubled for 1963 San Francisco. Nancy and the producers of the movie took full advantage of much of the local talent in the area and I drew heavily on that local talent scene to get a clear and concise portrait of the making of the film. As the film scene as it existed in the early 1990s took clear focus, so too did River Phoenix and his methodology of creating a believable character. Bob Comfort’s script keboshed with Savoca’s own unique vision were the blueprint that the young actor used to infuse life and energy into what before had been words and directions on paper. Helping him achieve a peculiar sort of truth with his acting was the best dance partner any performer could ever ask for, Lili Taylor. Chemistry between actors can’t be faked or bluffed and for a film such as Dogfight that billed itself as a love story, it was crucial to have someone who could hold a scene with a power at least equal to that of Phoenix. Story after story that I collected from cast and crew of the movie illustrated to me just how spot on that casting was both on and off set.
I had, after nearly a year of interviewing and researching, the beginnings of a solid and balanced book that told a story of a family of actors who had banded together to make the best possible film they could. The only thing I didn’t have as of yet were some crucial interviews with several of the more “higher ups” involved in the story of Dogfight. These would be essential ingredients in order to tell as complete of a story about the making of the movie as was humanly possible. My “letter” of thanks to River Phoenix was taking shape not only as an appreciation to an actor I genuinely admired, but also as a real and heartfelt look at the Hollywood movie scene of the early 1990s. I believed in this project so much it sometimes seemed as if I was willing it into existence independent of my keyboard.
But ‘twas not to be.
Some book and film projects die a natural death, having demonstrated all there is to know during their allotted page number or running time. Others are murdered, their life force strangled prematurely while still embryonic. Such was the fate of my love letter to Dogfight.
Love’s Labour Lost
A frustrating byproduct of River Phoenix’ early passing and the manner in which he left us is that few of River’s close working colleagues – twenty five years after the fact – are willing to go on record about this talented wunderkind, no matter if the questions being put to them stays strictly in the realm of the work he produced. A sense of territoriality seems to prevail among those closest to him and certainly stems from the inarguably shoddy nature in which print journalism has reduced his story to nothing more than a cautionary tale about the dangers of living too fast in Hollywood. This blanket damnation of all writers by some of the bigger names in the film industry is ultimately what felled this would-be well intentioned writer.
The aforementioned higher-ups in the story of Dogfight were not willing to play ball with me and this became clear as rain when, after several futile attempts to get in touch with one of the chief architects of the movie, my book was threatened with a potential lawsuit by the creative party in question. This message was delivered to me not by the person I was attempting to interview but rather by an associate who was contacted after my e-mail queries were ignored. This all dropped on me suddenly and unexpectedly, even though I had always been half-aware of the so-called “River Phoenix embargo” that had quashed other well-meaning books and documentaries. Somehow I had imagined because of my well-meant intentions and genuine love and passion for my subject that I would obviously be excluded from this media blackout.
The epiphany hit me like a ton of bricks: I was the dreaded writer and media type who must be avoided at all costs. I looked in the mirror thoughtfully, searching for any signs of an exploitive nature that was looking for the quick and easy pay check. All that stared back at me was just another suddenly heartbroken middle-aged writer with a book project being written on spec. It was to mark my second coming of age and perhaps a banishment of any twentysomething naivety that was still in my nature.
With a potential lawsuit looming over my work things began to unspool quite quickly: Other top-tier talent associated with Dogfight refused interview requests, explaining to me that without the participation of the one key player in the story of the film who had threatened my book in the first place they could not in all good conscience share their stories with me.
I fell into what could be termed as a many months tailspin. I had no backup plan for what to write if Dogfight fell through. With the death of my book I was suddenly rudderless and without view of a North Star to guide me to calmer waters. I could not believe that one person could strangle to death a book that was to exist for the sole purpose of shining a fun and poignant light on a special film. Could a book that redirected the conversation about River Phoenix and his legacy away from all of the tabloid garbage be that bad of a thing?
Now, days and weeks and months after the fact I have come to terms with the death of my book. Life is too short to harbor grudges and bad feelings. But…Sometimes, I dream. These are waking dreams which can be studied and pondered upon but never quite figured out in any rational way. Dreams are weird that way? In these waking dreams my mind sifts through all of the countless hours of interviews I conducted for my Dogfight book.
After the bad taste of threats and lawsuits I especially revel in the sweetness of these memories because they are memories of other people’s impressions and thoughts on a particular place and time in their professional and personal lives. I had the honor of talking to over a dozen and a half fine people associated with a tiny Warner Brothers movie that barely anyone saw when it first arrived in theaters so many years gone. Their words and their laughter, some affectionate, some sad, many wistful, will stay with me forever in the book I wrote in my mind but never got out onto paper.
All these hard working people told me the same thing: Making Dogfight was an exceptional period in their lives and they – like all of us – miss River Phoenix.