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  • Sarah E. Mason

Happy 50th River Phoenix: Two Films to Remind Us What Shoulda Coulda Been

Today would have been the 50th birthday of actor River Phoenix who tragically died at just 23 years old Oct 31, 1993. Here are two of his 13 films that are often overlooked but I highly recommend watching: RUNNING ON EMPTY (1988) and DOGFIGHT (1991).

In RUNNING ON EMPTY, Phoenix plays Danny Pope, a teenager on the run with his fugitive parents, Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Annie Pope (Christine Lahti). The film begins with the family, which includes Danny's younger brother Harry, starting a new life with a new identity. They have been on the run since Danny was two due to his parents role in an anti-war protest bombing of a napalm laboratory in the 1970s. When Danny's exceptional talent as a pianist catches the attention of his new music teacher, Mr. Crowley (who begins to pry into Danny's personal life), the Popes decide they must run again. Between Crowley's urging for Danny to audition for Juliard and Danny's new found love for Crowley's daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton), he begins to question whether he wants to remain with his family or forge his own life.

Phoenix earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his incredible layered, intense yet sensitive handling of a teenager trying to find his own voice under extreme life circumstances. In the hands of any other actor this entire film would not have worked. The film was directed by the great Sydney Lumet (12 ANGRY MEN, DOG DAY AFTERNOON) and written by Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (mother of Jake and Maggie) who was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay and won the Golden Globe for her script.

RUNNING ON EMPTY is currently streaming on HBO Max and can be rented on Amazon Prime for $1.99.

DOGFIGHT, tells the story of a young marine named Edie Birdlace (Phoenix) on his last night before he is shipped out to Vietnam. The film begins on November 21, 1963 (the day before JFK was assassinated) as Eddie and his military buddies arrive in San Francisco from where they are set to deploy. Eddie and his

friends plan to attend a cruel bar party called a "dogfight," which requires Marines to bring unattractive dates who will be judged for their ugliness. After several potential dates reject Eddie, he ducks into a coffee shop where he encounters a shy waitress, Rose (Lili Taylor) as she akwardly plays a folk song on her guitar. Rose accompanies Eddie to the dogfight and quickly discovers the cruel intentions of the event. Rose explodes at Eddie and his friends, storms out, Eddie runs after her, the night progresses and what began as a cruel game ends in a sweet love story.

This is one of Lili Taylor's (MYSTIC PIZZA, THE CONJURING) finest performances. The film is so unexpected in its emotional impact: The backdrop of San Francisco in the folk era, the last night of innocence for the country (remember its set the night before JFK was assassinated), and the thoughtful, effortless way Phoenix masters the character arc of this role is astounding. It is a sad reminder of what we lost with him and, what could have been.

The film, directed by Nancy Savoca (IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK) had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. The soundtrack is fantastic featuring prominent 60s artists including, John Fahey, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds. The film was adapted into an award winning stage musical in 2012 by Second Stage Theatre in NYC.

DOGFIGHT is available to rent for $1.99 on Amazon Prime.

River Phoenix as Chris Chambers in Stand by Me (1986)