River Phoenix did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Eddie Birdlace in Dogfight.
River Phoenix's tragically brief career was rather different than say a James Dean who had three major films, iconic to their era, although also in roles who all begin their films as rebellious young men against whatever system they are within. Phoenix's career perhaps resulted in fewer classics, although that may differ based on one's specific definition of a classics, his output was fairly prolific even within its brevity. Phoenix in his eight year long career made 13 (and half to include Dark Blood) films within a variety of genres, and importantly a variety of roles for Phoenix. This included within 1991 itself where he played the physically troubled prostitute in My Own Private Idaho, and here as Eddie Birdlace a marine on leave just before he is set to go over sea to Vietnam. Phoenix as he was believable in realizing the meekness Mike in that film, Phoenix captures the problematic machismo of Eddie here. Phoenix offers that certain swagger of both his personality and physicality as Eddie and his fellow "B" men, based upon their names, come into town looking for women. Phoenix delivers the complimentary hollow intensity as he portrays this inherent tension with every delivery really every movement that works in tandem as the other men hard bent on convincing they are all really fighting men, even though none of them have yet to feel the sting of battle.
Phoenix's performance wisely though brings enough of subtle nuance even within these moments that are properly overt as intended showing perhaps there is maybe a bit more substance to Eddie than his cohorts even if it is rather hidden. Eddie nonetheless goes about his task to find a "dog" for the dogfight coming across a local music loving waitress Rose (Lili Taylor). Phoenix is great in the initial pick up scene which involves obviously showing more interest than is honest towards Rose by Eddie. Phoenix though actually though sets up the potential for more in their relationship even in the troublesome initial setup there. Phoenix is great in the way he delivers that certain leading man charisma he was capable, though sadly was not able to show off frequently enough, though he brings though in somewhat overly forceful way. He cools the intensity of before though to reveal that charisma within it but in his initial pursuit Phoenix rather is able to establish the act Eddie is performing, while being believable that he would indeed be charismatic in Rose's eyes. When he shows interest in Rose's music though Phoenix subtly delivers more a genuine charm in line with these moments, and quieter attitude that effectively alludes to something more even as Eddie is still just propositioning her for a humiliating situation.
Phoenix finds the right approach within the dogfight sequence itself, which to the film's benefit is fairly early on in the story. In that again he creates the right sense of the circumstances that define Eddie's behavior against what is perhaps truer to Eddie's real nature. He still brings the moments directly with the other marines withe all the excessive bluster and absurd confidence needed. He subverts though in his moments with Taylor where he depicts a slowly growing unease as the two reach the titular event. Phoenix during the event itself shows Eddie only comfortable in the moments of complete blind support by his fellow marines within their deplorable behavior, and in turn Phoenix gradually in turn portrays this as a more difficult act to perpetuate. Phoenix naturally creates the complete loss of this attitude by in turn delivering such an earnest, if hesitant, warning towards Rose as she unknowing engages in parts of the "show". Phoenix properly shows not a hint of joy except in the most direct interactions with Rose, however even these Phoenix makes only the faintest fitting towards the compromise of the situation. When Rose discovers the truth and lashes out at Eddie, Phoenix powerfully delivers the vulnerability, not so much as classic Phoenix vulnerability, but more fitting to the character that Eddie is. He's moving though in so honestly creating this moment of full realization of actions through every word of Rose's. Phoenix says very little in the moment, but in his eyes conveys wholly Eddie's understanding of his wrongdoing.
The actual romance of the film begins when Eddie seeks to track down Rose to apologize for his actions while also taking her out on an actual date. Phoenix excels though as he shows still this struggle between his learnt expectation against his more genuine self. Eddie's initial apology is a beautifully realized moment by Phoenix by again so naturally purging the bluster, to show the more genuine individual in the moment. Eddie though once the new date starts puts it again as he shows her around town while trying to mock a maitre di. Phoenix once brings that same excessive unearned confidence in the moment throwing himself into every venom and profanity laced insult. What Phoenix does so well though is to portray this with such a extreme edge that is more fitting to it as almost an automatic reaction from his "education" in the marines. He pushes this as a blind rush into the type of man he's established himself with which Phoenix shows is still thin even when Eddie uses it for a less overtly problematic purpose. Rose calls him on this behavior again, though more gently than before, and Eddie finally lets it go. From there on Phoenix reveals really the real man that is beneath all that posturing and poignant portrays the far gentler soul within. From then on what we get instead is just this wonderfully realized romance between Eddie and Rose. Phoenix and Taylor have amazing chemistry with one another.
Their romance reminded a lot of the romance in Marty, which is always a good thing, in that while there is some underlying tension from the cause of their initial meeting, the two find such a beauty in their unassuming yet so very warm interactions with each other. The two just slowly build these ease from each subsequent scene, and the two are so genuine together that is so delightful just to watch the two interact with each other. What they even do for the most part isn't even that dramatic yet it doesn't matter because of how special yet still understated they make the relationship. Each step isn't this major act, but just this ingenious coming together two people. I love how simple yet special their final moments are that just seem right by how effectively Phoenix and Taylor realized the developing love between the two. That ends on a great note, but the film keeps going. The film then gets its second chance for a good ending where Eddie has a sobering talk with one of his fellow marines where he reveals his real self, as does his comrade. The film keeps going to cover the Kennedy assassination, Eddie's traumatic time in Vietnam then finally his return to Rose. Although I don't think these scenes are at needed to the overall story Phoenix's performance manages to give them at least some purpose by at least portraying Eddie's continuing down his path to becoming a more mature man even through his suffering. His final scenes back from the war Phoenix is moving in realizing the losses in his eyes, creating the right haunted quality within them, which in turn does make his return embrace with Rose rather moving even if paced strangely. Of course this is all just good film going on longer than it should, and at the very least we are granted more time with Phoenix's charismatic turn here. A performance that not only carries that extra time, it also just creates a fascinating and affecting portrait of a man finding himself while also finding love, and is a testament to the talent that was lost in River Phoenix.