Lili Taylor In "Alternative Oscars"

Excerpted from "Alternative Oscars" by Danny Peary, pp. 308-310. (1993)
This book describes very well who actually won and who should have won at the Oscars. It belongs in the library of any movie enthusiest and that's not just because I tend to agree with him.

BEST ACTRESS
WINNER:
Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs) Other Nominees: Geena Davis (Thelma & Louise), Laura Dern (Rambling Rose), Bette Midler (For the Boys), Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise)

THE BEST CHOICE:
Lili Taylor (Dogfight) Award-Worthy Runners-Up: Geena Davis (Thelma & Louise), Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs), Kerry Fox (A Table), Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes), Mimi Rogers (The Rapture), Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise), Alison Steadman (Life Is Sweet)

We longtime Jodie Foster enthusiasts who watched the wondrous young actress grow up onscreen in offbeat roles in such cult films as Taxi Driver, Bugsy Malone, and The little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and then move even farther out of the mainstream in Carny, Foxes, The Hotel New Hampshire, Siesta, Five Corners, and Stealing Home, always assumed the Academy would never think her the proper type to be honored with a Best Actress award. It was great but somewhat disconcerting when she won in 1989, after she starred in what she believed was another offbeat project, The Accused and it became a surprise commercial hit. But even more jolting: who would have thought Foster would be so embraced in Hollywood that she would beat Meryl Streep to two Best Actress awards? Or that she would join Luise Rainer (1936's The Great Ziegfeld, 1937's The Good Earth) and Katharine Hepburn (1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1968's The Lion in Winter) as the only actresses to win Oscars for consecutive performances?
Foster followed up her star-making performance as a rape victim who demands justice in The Accused with her portrayal of FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who tracks down a perverse serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs. She took the part after director Jonathan Demme's first choice, Michelle Pfeiffer, rejected it because she found the picture's subject matter too painful. Foster probably did a better job than Pfeiffer or any other lead actress could have done, for it is not that strong a part as written; there is little for an actress to work with. Foster makes it seem like a great part, delivering an assurred, cerebral performance. She is very subtle, relying a little on a lower-class West Virginia accent, and a great deal on eye movements (which are emphasized because in this film her hair is jet black), and slight, nervous smiles that reveal so much about her fears, vulnerability, and even thoughts of deception. Foster is impeccable, more than holding her own in intense scenes with Anthony Hopkins as genius psychopath Hannibal Lecter. If I don't like Foster--the cinema's finest natural actress--as much here as in other parts, it is only because her performance seems much more calculated. (I admit that she may come across this way because Clarice herself must be ever vigilant about not wavering from her own "performances" before her surrogate fathers, Hopkins's Hannibal and Scott Glenn's FBI agent.)
Foster's brave, shrewd, daringly honest Clarice is certainly a better role model than Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis's well-acted outlaw pals in the popular Thelma & Louise. Feminist screenwriter Callie Khourie, whose screenplay won an Oscar, was, when speaking before the Academy and pro-choice demonstrators in Washington, presumptuous enough to believe all feminists embraced her violent, power-claiming heroines. But I think many would opt for the friends played by Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker in Fried Green Tomatoes, who are equally supportive and more loving (in not that dissimilar a situation), and far less reckless and self-destructive. In a terrible year for movies but an exceptional one for lead actresses, my favorite female performances were unnominated ones: Masterson in Fried Green Tomatoes; Mimi Rogers as a nympho-turned-Jesus-freak in Michael Tolkin's daringly blasphemous God-exists-but-isn't-worthy-of-our-devotion work, The Rapture; and, best of all, Lili Taylor in the sorrowfully neglected romance, Dogfight.
In 1963, a young marine, Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix), and his three equally rowdy buddies have a leave in San Francisco before going off to Vietnam. They play one of their usual games: whoever can pick up the ugliest date--a woman you wouldn't want to be seen with at a dogfight--wins money in a pool. After several failures, Eddie sweet-talks Rose (Taylor), a chubby, plain-looking young waitress, into coming to the "party." She tells him she wants to be a folksinger and join the Peace Corps, to make a difference. Before they reach their destination, Eddie tries to convince her to go elsewhere because he realizes she is too nice to be taken advantage of. But she wants to go to the party. One of his friends wins the pool in an underhanded manner. Rose finds out about the "dogfight." She slaps and tells off Eddie. Later Eddie goes to her home and apologizes. They spend an eventful night together, opening up to each other and becoming close. Eddie even tones down his cussing at her insistence. Finally, they tenderly make love. In the morning, he leaves. He throws out her address, The times become turbulent in America and in Vietnam. They meet again.
A talented young actress with an unusual combination of spunk, sharp wit, and charm, Lili Taylor is, unfortunately, still an unknown. She gave a spirited performance as one of the three waitress-girlfriends in Mystic Pizza, but of course that's the film in which Julia Roberts was discovered. And Nancy Savoca's little charmer, Dogfight, was a picture everyone "meant to see" but let slip away. Savoca, one of America's most exciting and original directors, helped inspire Annabella Sciorra and Ron Eldard (as an engaged, battling young Italian-American couple) to portray real, endearingly flawed characters in her wonderful debut film, True Love. She also proved herself to be one of America's few directors who makes films about characters, male and female, for whom she has true affection. In Dogfight, which was written by ex-Marine Bob Comfort, Savoca again roots for her young lovers as they fumble through their lives and struggle to make a rocky relationship work. My guess is that Savoca made sure her two young leads felt much warmth for the characters they played. If Taylor's Rose comes across as almost perfect, it's because the actress brought out that in her. Taylor put on twenty pounds and some unflattering clothes and makeup to play Rose, and then spends the entire film showing us, and Eddie, what an attractive young woman Rose is. When Eddie ultimately says she looks beautiful as she climbs into bed with him, we realize that he is telling the truth. Phoenix's Eddie was just lucky to have stumbled on a near-perfect girt, a "rose," on his way to a dogfight.
When I first saw this movie, I felt extremely sad when I saw the early scene in which Lili excitedly prepares for her date with Birdlace. I was preparing for what I assumed would be devastating humiliation for her. But once Rose discovers the reason for Eddie's instant interest in her, she doesn't slink to the floor and allow her ego to evaporate. She comes out swinging, literally, repeatedly slapping Eddie for his detestable behavior. She's sweet but she's also a fighter for what is right. She is very sad when she returns to her room but she is not destroyed. She doesn't look into a mirror and whimper about being an ugly duckling. Whereas another actress might have played Rose as a wallflower, as Sissy Spacek did the shy girl in Carrie, Taylor won't allow Rose to be a victim. Rose's optimism about the world in general extends to herself. She isn't overly confident, but she realizes she has much to offer. Unsure but not afraid to take chances, she sings for Eddie; not worried about opening up to a marine who has probably had countless lovers, she invites him to her room for her first sexual experience. She sees the worth in herself, just as she sees it in Eddie. He is worthy of being her first lover; and she knows, as he fully comprehends years later, that she is more than worthy of being his lover.
Taylor is so winning throughout that it's hard to pick out her finest moments. I love when she performs for Eddie, amateurishly plinking on a piano and singing too softly, but with such passion and sincerity that he is deeply affected. And when, in a scene from the sixties I really identified with, she excitedly tells him about the folk singers whose pictures are on her walls and then plays him her favorite (Joan Baez). And when she exhibits a content, mature, and extremely pretty look as she kisses Birdlace goodbye on the morning after their lovemaking. Her final moment in the film is also very moving. You feel for Rose and the actress who so appreciates her. Long after I saw Dogfight, I found myself thinking of both Lili Taylor's lovely character and her lovely performance.


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