RIVER PHOENIX – 2 Scenes

Symposiums - Reverse Shot
photo courtesy of Reverseshot.org

The greatness of River Phoenix is only underscored by the tragedy that he has been gone for 27 years. Many artists have died without ever realizing their full potential. River Phoenix not only realized his full potential but soared past it in a way that made you think the possibilities of his talent were endless. Look at the career that Leonardo Dicaprio has had and try to imagine River Phoenix in those same roles or possibly the two megastars sharing the screen. And what about the outstanding career of his younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix, and the thought that movie fans could’ve been watching them compete for awards while giving the audience unforgettable performance after another. Unfortunately, the world lost a beautiful soul when River Phoenix passed away but his performances and legacy will live on forever. Two films he made in 1991 are true classics in the portrayal of a lonely, sensitive, brooding outsider. A role that Phoenix perfected, maybe because it was so close to who he really was.

DOGFIGHT (1991)

River plays Eddie, a young Marine on the eve of his deployment to the simmering situation in Southeast Asia that would become the Vietnam War. The film’s title refers to the inciting incident of the film when Eddie and his fellow Marines scour the streets of San Francisco for dates to a “Dog Fight.” This is the crude title of a contest where whoever shows up with the ugliest date wins a cash prize. Eddie settles on Rose, a waitress and aspiring folk singer played by Lily Taylor. The two are perfect opposites as they wander the streets for a night with Eddie looking around every corner for a fight while Rose preaches about non violence and being more understanding of the people around you. Rose’s compassion wins over Eddie’s gung ho attitude and the night culminates with them making love and promising to write each other while Eddie is away at war.

The end has Eddie back where he was at the start of the film in San Francisco and limping around the same streets he and Rose had drifted through together. This is where River Phoenix’s brooding intensity shines as he stops into a bar, dressed in his fatigues, and orders a beer. The bartender and two patrons don’t know how to treat the returning veteran so they make an awkward attempt by buying him a beer. Eddie, noticeably limping, crosses the street and enters Rose’s cafe. In this scene, which runs over two minutes, the star of the film says two words: ‘Rose?’ and ‘Hi.’ River Phoenix could have said nothing in this scene because it is his eyes and face that do all of the talking. With his hair slightly messed up and pushed down on his forehead, he looks like a little boy, his face on the verge of crumbling. It is finally when Rose hugs Eddie that he lets go and allows her to comfort and love him. Alternating close ups show the emotion on both actors faces as they contemplate what this reunion means. Rose looks a little frightened where Eddie looks remorseful and grateful to be back in Rose’s arms after everything he has just gone through.

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

The role of ‘Scott’ in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho would be a courageous choice for an actor in 2020 let alone in 1991 when it was made. It amazes me how many courageous and challenging roles River Phoenix was able to squeeze in in such a short period of time but none more than this role where he plays a male prostitute who suffers from bouts of narcolepsy and memories of an abusive childhood. So many great wide landscape shots with only Phoenix on the screen show this man’s isolation from the world around around him. Phoenix drifts through these beautiful landscapes for the entire film, from Idaho all the way to Italy and back, as he says “this road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.”

This film is extraordinary in the brilliance of its subject matter coupled with some truly beautiful filmmaking. One scene that I believe makes the entire film was one that was actually written by Phoenix himself. The ‘Campfire’ scene. While not in the original script, Phoenix decided the character of Scott needed to tell Mike, played by Keanu Reeves, how much he loves him. Phoenix stares at the fire, a soft orange glow illuminating his face, and tells Mike that he knows his life has been hard due to trauma from his childhood. While Mike tries to brush off Scott’s advances with wisecracks, Phoenix digs in and tell him that he just wants someone he can love and he knows that someone is Mike. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Mike shoots down Scott and tells him he can’t be in love with another man. Knowing he has shattered Scott’s hopes and dreams of being in love, Mike invites him over to sit next to him. Phoenix, like a ghost, crawls into Mike’s arms and the two hug in the glow of the campfire. For Scott, this is an omen for the heartbreak and rejection that will continue to follow him for the rest of the film.

If you haven’t seen these two films or any of River Phoenix’s films in a long time, I recommend a retrospective. While we will never get another River Phoenix film, the performances he left are timeless.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Image result for once upon a time in hollywood
Photo courtesy of Forbes.com

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers]

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is at the same time a love letter to Hollywood, Los Angeles, Film and TV of the 1960’s, and a very misguided twist on the-still shocking 50 years later-Sharon Tate murders in August 1969. Although I’m not a huge fan of Tarantino myself I can say that it is a joy to watch when he shows off his exceptional filmmaking and writing skills. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, however, the master may have bit off more than he could chew.

The three stories that run parallel to each other for most of the film are so well written that I believe each could stand on their own. The first story, that of fading Western TV star Rick Dalton played by Leonardo Dicaprio and his stunt double/driver/assistant Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt is so good it’s a wonder what took so long to get these 2 guys together in the same movie. While it may be hard to believe that Leo could pull off playing a washed up TV actor on the wrong side of 40 who nobody wants to hire, he does it in spades. Rick Dalton is an insecure, alcoholic clown and yet Leo gives him such heart and depth that for almost 3 hours I was not only captivated by him but also pulling for him. Brad Pitt also finds himself in an unfamiliar role that he nails, maybe better than Leo does with Dalton. Cliff Booth is a stuntman who was Dalton’s stunt double on his hit TV series “Bounty Law” but now operates as Dalton’s lacky, doing odd jobs for him and driving him to auditions. While driving around Hollywood he picks up a young hippie girl who takes him to the Manson family commune at Spahn Ranch. This scene is outstanding. Tarantino uses a beautiful wide angle shot of Booth’s point of view of the decrepit, decaying former western TV lot. We follow Booth as he meets and interacts with the Manson family members. Dakota Fanning is excellent as “Squeaky” Fromme, who has a very short and hostile encounter with Booth. By using the audiences knowledge of the history of the Manson family, Tarantino is able to create so much tension in the scene that you’re not sure if he’s going to make it out of this place alive.

Much criticism has been hurled at Tarantino for his portrayal of Sharon Tate which I believe is unwarranted. While he does have a history of objectifying women I don’t see that in the performance of Margot Robbie. Robbie, with more than enough beauty to match Tate, floats through the film like an angel. She is shown dancing at parties, enjoying her mansion at 10050 Cielo Drive, giving a hitchhiker a ride, pretty much being the beautiful soul she was known to be. Probably the most beautiful moment in the film regarding Tate is when she goes to a theater to see herself on the big screen in the Dean Martin action film, “The Wrecking Crew.” Tate sits in the dark theater and is filled with joy and genuine pride when the audience responds to her performance.

Of all of the villains in Tarantino’s movies, his Manson family may be the scariest, probably because they were real people. While Charles Manson is portrayed in a very short, unremarkable scene, it is the “Manson girls” at the Ranch and in the dumpsters of Hollywood who really steal the show. As mentioned earlier, the scene where Cliff Booth goes to the Ranch is an excellent introduction and portrayal of just how lost and deranged these people were. The empty, blank stares, the open hostility of Dakota Fanning, and the aggressiveness of “Tex” Watson are downright scary. But where the writer/director gets the Manson family behavior correct, he also drops the ball when it comes to their most famous act. No one, and I mean no one wants to see the murder of Sharon Tate recreated in a Hollywood film even someone with a lust for violence like Tarantino but the way he “rewrites” history and turns it into a total farce that doesn’t even include the house or the occupants at 10050 Cielo Drive does a disservice to the victim’s memory.

“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is an homage to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and with the brilliance of Tarantino’s attention to detail, one can feel like they are walking down Hollywood Boulevard, getting a table at El Coyote, being in the middle of a Wild West shootout on the backlot of a major studio. They can also have their fairy tale ending, even if that’s all it is.