Nat­u­rally gifted, he seemed des­tined to be­come the ac­tor of his gen­er­a­tion un­til his shock­ing, un­timely death. On the 25th an­niver­sary of his pass­ing, Xav Judd pon­ders on what might have been, and pays trib­ute to his idol.

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT -

On the 25th an­niver­sary of his pass­ing, Xav Judd pon­ders what might have been, and pays trib­ute to his idol.

Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion has a sig­nif­i­cant celebrity death: John F Kennedy, Elvis, Kurt Cobain, Amy Wine­house. I’ll never for­get what I was do­ing when my idol, ac­tor, River Phoenix passed away in Oc­to­ber 1993 at age 23. I was stay­ing at a mate’s place in Ed­in­burgh over Hal­loween. A few of us had just re­turned from a night’s club­bing when I saw a TV news bul­letin re­port­ing that River Phoenix was dead. What made it even more shock­ing was that this squeaky-clean twen­tysome­thing had suc­cumbed to a coke and heroin over­dose af­ter leav­ing Johnny Depp’s Hol­ly­wood night­club, The Viper Room.

Who was this wildly charis­matic but trou­bled per­former, and why did he make such an im­pact on me and the film world?

River Jude Phoenix was born on 23rd Au­gust 1970, in Ore­gon, USA, the el­dest child of John and Ar­lyn. They named him af­ter the river of life in Her­mann Hesse’s spir­i­tual novel Sid­dhartha, which seemed pre­scient as he cer­tainly had ethe­real qual­i­ties

The first time I saw River was in the Peter Weir film The Mos­quito Coast (1986). Har­ri­son Ford was my favourite ac­tor at the time and fa­mous for the ini­tial in­stal­ment of the Star Wars saga (1977–1983). I watched all of his movies re­li­giously but, in this film, was a rel­a­tively un­known ado­les­cent out-act­ing him. No-one I’d seen on film be­fore made such an im­me­di­ate im­pres­sion on me.

River’s act­ing style was mer­cu­rial and nat­u­ral­is­tic – his tal­ent jumped off the screen and held me spellbound. That same year I saw him in the com­ing-of-age clas­sic Stand By Me

(1986), which im­me­di­ately be­came my most cher­ished fea­ture film. Un­doubt­edly, this had a lot to do with an in­ge­nious sto­ry­line de­vel­oped from Stephen King’s novella, The Body (1982) in­volv­ing four kids try­ing to track down a dead boy; and also be­cause of the ex­tra­or­di­nary cast in­clud­ing John Cu­sack, Richard Drey­fuss and Kiefer Suther­land. Nonethe­less, it was River’s per­for­mance that stole the show.

River’s un­con­ven­tional up­bring­ing in­spired his cin­e­matic ca­reer but, it could be ar­gued, also played a siz­able part in his demise. His par­ents were hippies. Their other off­spring were also given colour­ful names: Lib­erty, Rain, Sum­mer and Leaf, who is now bet­ter known as the Joaquin Phoenix.

In 1973 they “dropped-out” of a United States riven by the Viet­nam War (1955-1975) and the Water­gate scan­dal. The in­tended nir­vana for the fam­ily was South Amer­ica, where Ar­lyn and John worked as mis­sion­ar­ies for the Chil­dren Of God, a Chris­tian cult. Fi­nally set­tling in the Venezue­lan cap­i­tal, Cara­cas, times were so hard that River and his sib­lings of­ten sang on street cor­ners for money. It’s pos­si­ble that this ex­pe­ri­ence tough­ened the elder Phoenix and helped him grow as a per­former, but it was not a happy time for him.

To­wards the end of the ’70s, af­ter be­com­ing disen­chanted with the Chil­dren Of God, John and Ar­lyn moved their clan back state­side, to Florida. But they had no idea, at the time, what had hap­pened to their son while in the cult. In a Novem­ber 1991 De­tails mag­a­zine in­ter­view, River re­vealed that he was raped when he was four years old by a mem­ber of the Chil­dren Of God. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to con­tem­plate the ef­fect this crime had on his men­tal health. We know that in many in­stances, child­hood trauma can be a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to de­vel­op­ing ad­dic­tions in adult life; again, we spec­u­late, but could this have led River to the so­lace of nar­cotics?

While busk­ing with his sib­lings in Westwood, Los An­ge­les, River was spot­ted by tal­ent agent Iris Bur­ton who signed him up. His ex­cep­tional qual­i­ties in front of the cam­era were soon dis­cov­ered and put him on the fast track to star­dom. Af­ter com­plet­ing sev­eral high-pro­file ad­ver­tis­ing jobs and serv­ing as the warm-up act for the au­di­ence on the TV show Real Kids, River de­voted him­self full-time to act­ing. It was 1980, and the pre­co­cious, doe-eyed, 10-year-old threw him­self head­first into the Hol­ly­wood ma­chine.

River al­ways seemed to have a fresh ap­proach when it came to act­ing, whether it was in the roles he played or just au­di­tion­ing. For in­stance, in 1982, in at­tempt­ing to win the Guthrie McFadden part on the CBS semi-mu­si­cal TV show Seven Brides For Seven Broth­ers, he turned up to the in­ter­view with gui­tar in hand. A few min­utes later, the pro­gram’s pro­ducer was “all shook up” when River did an im­promptu Elvis im­per­son­ation, and so of­fered him the gig. Later, in the fea­ture A Night In The Life Of Jimmy Rear­don (1988), ac­cord­ing to its di­rec­tor Wil­liam Richert, the teenager pre­pared dili­gently for the lead by re­strict­ing him­self to a diet of tinned soup and do­ing hun­dreds of press- ups so that he could shed the puppy-fat look from Stand By Me and as­sume the toned pro­file nec­es­sary

for the char­ac­ter.

River was not a method ac­tor per se and never had any train­ing in this par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline, but he joins a long line of per­form­ers – Mar­lon Brando, Mont­gomery Cliff, Robert De Niro – who to­tally sub­sumed them­selves into a role. With River Phoenix, I al­ways felt that the more he in­vested him­self into a per­sona, the more his in­ner be­ing ex­pressed it­self on screen. In­deed, the Dutch di­rec­tor Ge­orge Sluizer, who cast the star in Dark Blood, said of him, “I don’t think I ever felt that some­thing was false or fake”. River him­self once stated, “For me, be­ing true is all I can do in my craft that makes it valid for me.”

(Dark Blood was filmed in 1993 but, due to River’s death, not re­leased un­til 2012 with ad­di­tional nar­ra­tion for un­com­pleted scenes.)

But au­then­tic­ity and com­mit­ment to his vo­ca­tion were not the only traits that dis­tin­guished River from his peers. By the late 1980s, when his ris­ing-star sta­tus meant he could pick and choose his projects, he was re­ceiv­ing thou­sands of fan let­ters a week and adorn­ing the cov­ers of teen mag­a­zines. Yet, the last thing he wanted was fame for fame’s sake. This may be hard to com­pre­hend in the celebrity driven era we now in­habit. To­day, a tal­ent­less, non-en­tity C-lis­ter can cre­ate a tsunami of pub­lic­ity just by shak­ing their butt or “ac­ci­den­tally” re­leas­ing a sex tape. River avoided the spot­light and was hap­pi­est chill­ing at the ranch in Gainesvill­e, Florida that he bought for his fam­ily. Here, he com­posed songs and be­came a pro­fi­cient gui­tarist. His rock band, Aleka’s At­tic were of­fered a record deal.

That’s not to say that River didn’t use his star power from time to time. He did, but to draw at­ten­tion to a range of im­por­tant causes he felt strongly about, like ad­vo­cat­ing for a more sus­tain­able life­style. He pro­moted PETA (Peo­ple For The Eth­i­cal Treat­ment Of An­i­mals) and ve­g­an­ism. He pur­chased 320 hectares of en­dan­gered rain­for­est in Costa Rica. For me, he was the first well-known per­son I ob­served who talked about con­ser­va­tion and an­i­mal wel­fare, and against ma­te­ri­al­ism.

In 1988, River demon­strated that he was com­ing of age as an ac­tor in Sid­ney Lumet’s Run­ning On Empty. He played Danny Pope, a vir­tu­oso pi­anist and the oldest mem­ber of a fugi­tive fam­ily, and the per­for­mance gar­nered him his only Os­car nom­i­na­tion.

The fol­low­ing year, he teamed up with Har­ri­son Ford again, this time in the swash­buck­ling In­di­ana Jones And The Last Cru­sade (1989), in which he played the young Indy. But his de­sire to stretch the bound­aries of his art meant he was search­ing for edgier roles. Against the wishes of his agent, who thought the project was “too seedy”, River took a co-star­ring lead role in the Gus Van Sant film, My Own Pri­vate Idaho (1991).

River played Mike, a drug ad­dict, op­po­site Keanu Reeves as Scott – both are gay street hus­tlers in the de­crepit un­der­belly of Port­land. Van Sant ben­e­fit­ted greatly from the cast­ing of Phoenix and Reeves be­cause the film’s ob­tuse Shake­spearean ref­er­ences and sub­ject mat­ter could have con­signed this art­house drama to ob­scu­rity with­out them.

It was an ex­tremely brave ca­reer move for both young ac­tors, emerg­ing A-lis­ters at the time, to take on overtly non-het­ero­sex­ual roles.

In pre­par­ing for Idaho, River’s “method” ap­proach to re­search in­cluded vis­it­ing the less salu­bri­ous parts of Port­land to in­ter­view

It strikes me as strange that any­one could have any moral ob­jec­tion to some­one else’s sex­u­al­ity. – River Phoenix

rent boys. Dur­ing the shoot, he was quoted as say­ing, “It still strikes me as strange that any­one could have any moral ob­jec­tion to some­one else’s sex­u­al­ity. It’s like telling some­one else how to clean their house.”

This was a sig­nif­i­cant mes­sage for me, a fan, to hear. I was strug­gling with my own sex­ual iden­tity at the time. It made me feel slightly less alone. To oth­ers, his com­ment was sim­ply fuel to the spec­u­la­tion that he was bi­sex­ual, as was a change he made to the Idaho script.

In Van Sant’s orig­i­nal ver­sion, the di­rec­tor had writ­ten a three-page con­fes­sional camp­fire scene; but River re-wrote it – more than dou­bling it in length – and adding di­a­logue in which his char­ac­ter, Mike, tells Keanu Reeve’s char­ac­ter, Scott, that he loves him. Many have spec­u­lated that this was, in fact, how River felt about his co-star in real life.

Of­fi­cially, he was het­ero­sex­ual and his girl­friends in­cluded Saman­tha Mathis and Martha Plimp­ton. But, had he been gay or bi­sex­ual, the ac­com­pa­ny­ing in­se­cu­rity and fragility may have been what pro­vided those ex­tra di­men­sions to his on-screen per­sonas that made them seem more com­plex, in­ter­est­ing and hu­man. Shades of Mont­gomery Clift and James Dean.

Un­for­tu­nately, in fur­ther prepa­ra­tion for his role in Idaho, River ex­per­i­mented with the hard drugs that his char­ac­ter used, and even­tu­ally be­came de­pen­dent. He tried to quit but couldn’t.

There were a va­ri­ety of pres­sures fac­ing the young ac­tor that may have been con­tribut­ing fac­tors: he’d been sup­port­ing his en­tire fam­ily from a young age, he may have been con­flicted around his sex­u­al­ity, he was un­com­fort­able with his fame and the na­ture of the Hol­ly­wood sys­tem. No doubt he was also deeply trau­ma­tised by his child­hood rape.

When he died on the pave­ment out­side The Viper Room, Gen­er­a­tion X lost one of its heroes and the world lost a per­former who was des­tined to reach the top of his pro­fes­sion. We’ll never know how deeply his tal­ent would have evolved, and we’ll never know what good his ac­tivism may have brought to the world.

River sought sub­stan­tive roles and brought sen­si­tiv­ity, vul­ner­a­bil­ity and nuance to the screen, while his ideals marked him as a beau­ti­ful soul.

River was a re­mark­able artist and a rare hu­man be­ing. I miss him ev­ery day. – Keanu Reeves

The un­fin­ished Dark Blood.

As young In­dian Jones in The Last Cru­sade.

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