STILL IN LOVE WITH RIVER PHOENIX
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.
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.