It’s cliche to say that you never forget your first love. But it’s true: you really don’t. This October marks twenty-six years since one of my very first screen loves, River Phoenix, passed away at the age of twenty-three. Although it has been nearly three decades since that tragic night, River still inspires devotion from his fan base, and whenever his friends, colleagues or family members pay tribute to him — like when his sister Rain announced that her new album will be named after him or when his brother Joaquin mentioned him in a recent award acceptance speech — the news always garners great interest.
The very embodiment of the early 90s heartthrob, River Phoenix is mostly remembered by cinema-lovers for his performances in My Own Private Idaho, Stand By Me and Running On Empty, three films that earned him an Oscar nomination and the reputation as one of the most exciting young actors of his time. However, it is the underrated little indie film called Dogfight, released in 1991 and directed by Nancy Savoca, that holds a special place in my heart for how much it is intrinsically linked to the bittersweet nature of his short-lived life and career.
In Dogfight River plays a US marine named Eddie Birdlace: rude, brash, angry, but charming and irresistible as only a great romantic lead could be. Eddie’s about to turn nineteen when he and his marine buddies arrive in San Francisco to spend their last few hours stateside before they’re shipped off to the Vietnam war. They are there to attend the Dogfight, a party where they must bring the most unattractive girls they can find as their dates. At the end of the night, the girl who’s judged to be the ‘ugliest’ wins her guy prize money. After a whole day of failing to convince an ‘ugly’ woman to accompany him, Eddie stumbles into a cafe to seek shelter from the rain.
Enter Rose Fenny (the stupendous but underrated Lili Taylor): Frumpy. Hair a little uncombed and wild. Smile shy. Young, naive and idealistic. What some people might call “chubby” and “ain’t no prize”. Charmed by Eddie, Rose decides to leave her mother at home and join him at the Dogfight. Of course, she later finds out the truth and leaves in tears. What happens next very much follows the film’s tagline of “A love story”: Eddie sneaks away from his friends, shows up at her house to ask for forgiveness and convinces her to join him on a real date. Then they wander around the city together for hours, bonding and sharing their hopes and dreams. They end the night at her place where, after an aborted attempt at musical bingo, they make love for the first time. The moment, like the rest of the film, is very tender, very sweet, yet marred by an indescribable sense of sadness and grief.
One of the film’s most emotional scenes is what happens the morning after: after she’s given him her address, telling him he can write if he wants, he kisses her goodbye as the sun starts to rise. The Golden Gate bridge is straight ahead, the road empty. He turns away from her and begins to run. And in the background Bob Dylan is singing: “I loved a woman / A child, I’m told / I gave her my heart / but she wanted my soul / Don’t think twice, it’s all right”
Despite its braggadocios lyrics, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All right” is very much a classic case of “The lady doth protest too much”: the melody is wistful, Dylan’s harmonica-playing mournful, and the song is adapted from a traditional ballad that’s best remembered for its sorrowful refrain of “Just wonder who’s gonna buy you ribbons when I’m gone”. “A lot of people make it sort of a love song − slow and easygoing,” Dylan, who wrote the song after his girlfriend Suze Rotolo left him, once explained. “But it isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say something to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself.”
This is what Dogfight gets so right about first loves: despite its all-consuming nature, first loves are always defined by loss and longing, and one’s attempt to reconcile the two.
Ever since he passed away in 1993, the myth of River Phoenix has grown steadily just as myths tend to do around icons and doomed artists. This, of course, makes reconciling ‘the loss’ of him with my initial ‘longing’ for him especially complicated. Everything he did and said have since been elevated to folklore-status, from tales of the intense research he did for his My Own Private Idaho role to the seemingly mundane, like running towards the Golden Gate bridge in Dogfight while the crew yelled “Run, River, run!” after him just because they thought it sounded like a country song.
River’s upbringing already marked him out as a unique individual: he grew up in a cult and became the breadwinner for his entire family before he was barely out of his teens. (Even before he made it in Hollywood, he and his younger siblings would busk for money on the side of the road.) As a boy of eight, in the film Explorers with a young Ethan Hawke, he already took acting so seriously, he knew all the things his character would have in his pocket. At nineteen he was nominated for an Oscar. At twenty-three he played a gay hustler when it wasn’t popular to do so.
River was also beautiful, almost soulfully and exceptionally so — the kind of beauty that holds your gaze for years and lends itself to myth-making. (Heath Ledger, James Dean, Kurt Cobain, the list goes on and on.) When he’s on screen, he rarely needed to move or kick up a fuss; he didn’t need to become a spectacle to grab your attention. He did it simply by being a presence — with his intense stare and his stoic yet vulnerable physicality. That signature clenched jaw that makes his mouth droop downwards as though he’s always on the verge of either a violent outburst or tears.
He was a musician, an environmentalist, a vegetarian and an activist. Someone who was so cool, he got away with saying things like, “I would never, never do anything unless I believed in it,” and “I don’t want to die in a car accident. When I die it’ll be a glorious day. It’ll probably be a waterfall.”
But it wasn’t a glorious day when he died; it was only Halloween night. And there wasn’t a waterfall, only the cold concrete of the pavement in front of the Viper Room, with his younger brother, sister and girlfriend wailing hysterically beside him.
Life, as Eddie and Rose come to learn in Dogfight, can sometimes be marked by a series of losses — of innocence, of friendship and family, of self. In a blog post titled “Though I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years, I knew I’d miss him forever”, his co-star in Stand By Me, Will Wheaton, describes the loss of River as a gradual process that had been happening for years:
“When he died, I was shocked and horrified, but I wasn’t completely surprised. I didn’t feel a real sense of loss at the time — the River I knew and loved had been gone for a long time at that point — but I felt sad for his family, and angry at the people around him who didn’t do more to help him help himself. Since he died, when I’ve talked about him, I’ve felt like I’m talking about the idea of him, instead of the person I knew, if that makes sense.”
Much can be written about River’s exceptional talent, the void he’s left behind in Hollywood that various other young men — the likes of Brad Pitt, Ethan Hawke, Leonardo DiCaprio — have stepped in to fill, or all the remarkable roles he would never get to play. (He and his friend Keanu Reeves even joked about doing Shakespeare together, either A Midsommer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, with River as Juliet.) We could even explore the tragic consequences of fame, whether what happened to him was because he became too good too young. But all of it would feel wildly impersonal and insufficient.
Perhaps the right words regarding the matter have already been uttered long ago by his ex-girlfriend, the actress Martha Plimpton, shortly after his untimely death: “He’s already being made into a martyr. He’s become a metaphor for a fallen angel, a messiah. He wasn’t. He was just a boy, a very good-hearted boy who was very fucked-up and had no idea how to implement his good intentions.”
As I take my eyes off this page, I can see that good-hearted, fucked-up boy on my screen now, still in his marine uniform but with the grief from years of war hanging off his shoulders. It is incomprehensible that this good-hearted, fucked-up boy has been dead for far longer than he’s ever been alive; that I am now, as I’m writing this, older than he ever had the chance to be.
I watch him lean over the counter and explain the tattoo the bartender has just spotted around his right thumb: a bluebird — the one he’s told Rose three years ago at the Dogfight is the bluebird of happiness that’s supposed to “carry me away from all the troubles and takes me to where it’s all happy”.
“That’s nice. It do anything?” the bartender asks, pointing at the bluebird. He half-shrugs. Then lifts his hand and brings it down with the index finger sticking out as if the bluebird were a plane nosediving into the ocean. “It didn’t take me where it was supposed to,” he says, “but it still flies.”
by Pim Wangtechawat
Pim Wangtechawat is a tall, awkward writer from Bangkok, Thailand, who spends most of her time obsessing over cinema, television, pop-culture, literature and history. She is also a proud Gryffindor and a massive fan of Liverpool Football Club. You can follow her on Twitter at @PimsupaW or check out her blog at keeponthegrass.net.