“I sometimes lie, especially about personal things, because what does it matter? I am a kind of minute commodity, my name is no longer my own.”
Born: August 23rd, 1970 – Oregon, USA
Died: October 31st, 1993 – California, USA
An ethereal figure in the annals of Hollywood, River Phoenix’s premature and infamous death on the sunset strip in 1993, positioned the 23 year old as somewhat of a mythical character in the ongoing narrative of Los Angeles. An actor capable of portraying intense rage, agonising sorrow and hypnotic charm from an astoundingly young age; the vast potential that Phoenix demonstrated in early turns such as Charlie Fox in The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Chris Chambers in the masterful Stand by Me (1986), dissipated into the night sky as he passed away under the stars of West Hollywood. Though his brother, Joaquin, would go on to stamp his own unique brand of turbulent charisma on the craft, the borders of River’s seemingly infinite talent were never fully realised, leaving many of us envisioning possible career paths and endlessly wondering what the future may have held.
But the 23rd day of this month is not the anniversary of his demise, rather the day of his birth on what would have been his 45th birthday, and instead of eulogising his death and mourning his untimely passing, let us instead celebrate Phoenix’s achievements and his mercurial talent. To achieve this, I would briefly like to discuss three of River’s most accomplished roles: his integral contributions to the films Stand by Me, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) and, what I perceive to be his finest hour and 50 minutes, the 1988 Sidney Lumet family drama, Running on Empty. Although Phoenix had, to some, indicated a desire to transition into bigger, more commercial roles, beginning with an appearance as the young Indy during the opening of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade(1989), his brief career was defined by independent cinema and he thrived in the more subtle and nuanced roles that the era had to offer.
Stand by Me is Phoenix as pure, raw acting talent. Barely 16 years old at the time of its release, River remains the linchpin of Reiner’s film, the moral centre of the story and the point around which the philosophy of the narrative, and the rest of the cast, would orbit. Though not strictly the protagonist, the character of Chris Chambers is arguably the catalyst for the tale, and through a combination of fragility, weariness and ambition, Phoenix was able to balance the film to avert it from descending into over-sentimentality and unfiltered, romanticised nostalgia.
An aptitude for balance is one of the most consistent virtues throughout River’s career, a gift for finding the maturity in his child roles and, following that, childlike wonder in his more adult orientated turns. The balance in Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho comes in the form of Phoenix unearthing and highlighting the brief moments of happiness in an otherwise tragic life. The character of Mike locates the cinematic and visual beauty in long stretches of deserted highway and blowjobs for cash; finding poetry in simple landscapes and mundane conversation equally. The collaboration between Van Sant and Phoenix gifted us the pivot in River’s acting career, the moment in which he transitioned from Child actor with insight beyond his years, to adult actor with phenomenal artistic perception.
Situated between these two films is Running on Empty, Sidney Lumet’s dissection of a counterculture family, long after the Summer of Love has ended. The unit is forced into a fugitive lifestyle by the parent’s actions during anti-Vietnam protests, with River as the son with no choice but to follow. It is here we see the career transition in full swing, the teenage Phoenix maturing as his character does, a role that complemented his growing reputation as a counterculture icon and likewise, as a serious Hollywood contender.
All three examples highlight Phoenix at his remarkable best, a stunning run of form that audiences and artists alike took note of. However, there will forever be the question that looms large over the life of the young actor: would or could this trajectory have continued? Would Phoenix have exiled negative influences and taken his career to stratospheric levels? Or perhaps have cultivated and maintained the independent and creative spirit that he harboured, eventually turning his hand to directing or a form of expression separate from the medium of film. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict how the career of the immensely talented Phoenix sibling could have unfolded. River appealed to both the entertainment and artistic attitudes of Hollywood, hybridising them into a single figure, and though there was no rise from the ashes, River’s influence and spirit still flows through his immortalised onscreen presence.
– Kristofer Thomas