Nancy Savoca's Dogfight (1991) in the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival

Lili Taylor tries to collect herself after realizing she was the victim of a humiliating prank in Dogfight (1991). Photograph from the Nancy Savoca Papers.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in conjunction with HBO Max will present Dogfight (1991), directed by Nancy Savoca as part of its annual film festival this month.  Savoca, who donated her papers to U-M in 2016, is part of the library's Screen Arts Maverick & Makers collection.

a man and women share an intimate moment in a bed
River Phoenix and Lili Taylor share an intimate moment following the disastrous Dogfight contest. Photograph from the Nancy Savoca Papers.

Dogfight has one of the most cringeworthy premises for a motion picture ever.  Based on Bob Comfort's novel, the film, set in late 1963 just prior to the assassination of JFK, centers on a group of Vietnam-bound army recruits who decide to play a prank on unsuspecting women by hosting a dance at a local bar on the eve before their departure.  Whoever brings the ugliest date to the dance wins the contest.  Savoca's take on the heartless, cruel, and misogynistic behavior of the male characters belies what most might have done with the story. Savoca does not dismiss them or relegate them as buffoons or one-dimensional characters.  Rather Dogfight shows off her innate ability to find the humanity within all her characters, to understand what drives and motivates them by concentrating on what makes them authentic, warts and all. The result is a sweet and powerful romance that concludes with a moment of poignancy rarely captured in movies.

sheets of paper with handwritten notes in red ink
Savoca's notes for rewrites of Bob Comfort's original draft of the screenplay of Dogfight (1991) adapted by him from his novel. From the Nancy Savoca Papers.

Kudos to TCM for including Savoca's unsung and underrated gem in their annual film festival.  Critically well-received at the time of its initial release, Warner Bros., its distributor, didn't know how to market it, and sadly it failed to connect with audiences in spite of its being a touching drama with winning performances by stars River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. 

a man with a pensive look on his face
River Phoenix was a rising star at the time of the film and supported Nancy Savoca's choices over insistance by studio bosses that they approach the film in a different manner. Photograph from the Nancy Savoca Papers.

Nancy Savoca's work was the subject of a class in the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures in 2019 which included a student-curated exhibition and screenings at the Michigan Theater's Cinetopia Film Festival. Her papers were donated to the University Library in 2016 and subsequently processed by archivist Meg Hixon. To explore the papers, browse the online finding aid.

The film will be playing all month on HBO Max, a partner this year with TCM and its film festival.  In addition to the film, also included is an interview with Savoca as well as a discussion of the film with TCM host Alicia Malone and filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu.  

storyboard sheet of paper with sketches of buildings and signs
One of the dozens of storyboards from the film that were used to plan out the look of the film in advance of shooting. From the Nancy Savoca Papers.