by Fiona Underhill
River Phoenix and I were born almost exactly ten years apart. When he died at the age of 23, I was 13. I was firmly in my ‘teen heart-throb’ stage and my walls were adorned with posters of Christian Slater (that obsession started with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which led me to discover Heathers and Pump Up The Volume) and Keanu Reeves (of which there will be much more later). Of course, River Phoenix was very much present in the posters and magazine clippings which plastered my walls. His death came as a huge shock – he was seen as a poster-boy for veganism, environmentalism, and clean living. So when he died such a public and tragic death outside Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room with a toxic cocktail of drugs in his body – it was sudden and devastating. There were days of hugging and crying with my friends at school. I wrote a BOOK of poems and song lyrics about River and gave it to one of my best friends. When Kurt Cobain died six months later, it had a much larger cultural impact, but for me - River was the one. The intensity of being 13 at the time, feeling things as keenly as only teenagers can, means that his death has had a lasting impact on me. I honestly remember it as one of the longest and most significant periods of grieving that I’ve gone through in my life.
River and his siblings; Rain, Summer, Liberty, and Leaf (now known as his real birth name of Joaquin Phoenix) were extremely poor as children and moved around a lot, including in Central and South America. River never attended school or had any formal education. When he was very young, his parents joined the religious cult known as the Children of God and River was sexually abused during this time. They left the cult in the late 1970s and this is when they adopted the surname Phoenix – to symbolize rebirth. In order to support the family financially, the children were street performers and then became actors. River and Leaf, in particular, were successful child actors. River co-starred with Ethan Hawke in The Explorers (1985), an entertaining sci-fi flick and then in The Mosquito Coast (1986) with Harrison Ford – a film about experiences similar to River’s childhood. A family go “off the grid” and travel to Central America.
In terms of directors, Phoenix worked with most of the 1980’s biggest names; Rob Reiner, Sam Shepard, Peter Bogdanovich, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet, Peter Weir, and Joe Dante. Only one female director featured, unfortunately – Dogfight’s Nancy Savoca. He worked with many great older actors including Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dame Joan Plowright, Dame Helen Mirren, William Hurt, Richard Harris, and Alan Bates. His contemporaries with whom he co-starred included Ethan Hawke, Matthew Perry, Ione Skye, Lili Taylor, Martha Plimpton, Sandra Bullock, Dermot Mulroney, Samantha Mathis, and of course, Keanu Reeves.
Four of Phoenix’s films deal with that most 1980s of concerns – the Cold War and the Russians as enemies or feature the FBI, CIA, and NSA. Mosquito Coast (1986) is about paranoia to do with nuclear war, Little Nikita (1988) involves Phoenix discovering that his parents are Russian spies, Running on Empty (1988 - for which Phoenix earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, even though you could argue that this is actually one of his few leading roles) is about a family on the run from the FBI due to his parents blowing up a napalm lab as an anti-Vietnam War protest and Sneakers (1992) is about a group of hackers who are employed by the NSA (or so they believe) to retrieve a black box capable of hacking any and all computer systems. A travel through Phoenix’s IMDb reveals a very particular snapshot of time and is an interesting document of politics, society and culture of the time.
Three of Phoenix’s films are set in the late 1950s/early 60s, which was a common theme of the time, as adults looked back on their childhoods or examined their parents’ generation. Stand By Me (1986, set in 1959) provided Phoenix with one of his greatest roles and really demonstrated his potential as a serious actor. A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988, set in 1962) is a comedy about a teenager trying to escape his parents’ expectations and about his encounters with various women and Dogfight (1991, set in 1963) is about a group of marines who make a bet seeing who can land a date with the ugliest woman. Many of Phoenix’s films featured him playing (for want of a better word) – horny teenagers. The pursuit of sex (and to be fair, love and romance) is a driving force for many of his characters - perhaps this was Hollywood capitalizing on his sensitive good looks and mop of thick blonde hair.
In Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (based on The Body by Stephen King), Phoenix plays Chris Chambers – the best friend of Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton). Both Chris and Gordie have older brothers who they are constantly compared to and about whom everyone has expectations because of this. Chris’ older brother ‘Eyeball’ is a rebellious trouble-maker and criminal – he is in a gang of bullies led by Ace (Kiefer Sutherland). Their father is also a drunk – Chris uses this to his advantage and steals cigarettes and a gun from him. Gordie’s older brother Denny (John Cusack) was a star football player before dying in a car accident and now Gordie feels pressure to live up to his brother’s potential. Chris is in a constant battle against his reputation, he is determined to leave their small town and make something of himself, but doubts that he can do it. Phoenix’s performance displays his typical sensitivity and is multi-layered. He would have been about 15 during filming, but still has puppy fat and looks closer to 12. His physical transformation from 1986’s Stand By Me to his roles in 1988 is extraordinary.
Phoenix has a great natural chemistry and banter with the other boys in Chris’ gang (rounded out by Jerry O’Connell and Corey Feldman). There are pivotal scenes, however, when Chris and Gordie almost have emotional breakdowns and reveal their inner turmoil. The first is the campfire scene, where Chris tells the story of the stolen milk money. Reiner pushed Phoenix into producing real tears for this scene by asking him to think of a time that adults had let him down (something I would imagine it would be easy for Phoenix to conjure up). The second is when they do eventually find the body and Gordie breaks down about his brother and how it should have been him who died. Phoenix is perhaps even more impressive here – bolstering his best friend and telling him he’s good enough. Gordie is a talented writer and Chris is one of the few who can see this and encourages him (I’m getting emotional just thinking about it). Stand By Me is already drenched in nostalgia, with Richard Dreyfuss’ narration reflecting on the fleeting nature of spending a summer with friends when you’re 12. The ending – given what happened to Phoenix – is absolutely heart-wrenching and lends an even more tragic air to the whole thing.
The other role which Phoenix is most associated with is that of Mike in Gus Van Sant’s sublime My Own Private Idaho (1991). This was the role that provided Phoenix with his greatest challenge and really demonstrated what he could do. It is an incredible film and an incredible performance. Phoenix plays narcoleptic prostitute Mike completely unpredictably – every choice he makes is surprising. The film adapts Shakespearean verse (specifically from Henry IV & V) and Mike’s relationship with the Hal-like Scott (Keanu Reeves) and the Fagin/Falstaff character of Bob (William Richert – who wrote and directed Jimmy Reardon) goes through subtle development that is down to both Van Sant’s script and Phoenix’s central performance. My Own Private Idaho is reminiscent of the films of the 1970s (particularly Paris, Texas, in terms of its cinematography especially), but was also extremely ahead of its time. Phoenix’s physicality in the role, especially when he collapses into his fits of narcolepsy is extraordinary – he frequently wakes being cradled by friends and strangers, emphasizing his vulnerability. Mike’s bouts of narcolepsy punctuate the film in terms of time and location, which abruptly shifts between Idaho, Portland, and even Italy. Mike is in love with Scott and Phoenix demonstrates this by subtly parroting Reeves’ unique gait and mannerisms. Phoenix was a gifted comedian (something not many people associate with him now), which he showed in I Love You To Death, Sneakers, Jimmy Reardon and through his extremely physical role in Indiana Jones. The Last Crusade is another example of Phoenix’s gift for mimicry because he eerily captures Harrison Ford’s mannerisms, despite looking almost nothing like him.
My Own Private Idaho’s most pivotal scene also happens around a campfire, as it did in Stand By Me. Mike confesses his love to Scott, who says he just wants to be friends and that “two men can’t love each other.” Phoenix responds in a typically physical manner, tightening up his body into a crouch, hugging his own legs – he realizes that he has to rely upon himself. Mike is physically vulnerable, due to his narcolepsy and is used to being rescued. But emotionally, at least, he is on his own. The quest to find his mother is part of Mike’s desire to stave off loneliness and to have a sense of belonging. Scott has a place in the world, due to being the Mayor’s son – he will inherit money and position. Mike is a true drifter and he doesn’t have a support system, other than Bob. He embraces and accepts Bob (who Scott has consistently mocked and belittled) as a surrogate father towards the end of the film. Phoenix’s performance when Mike sees Scott at the end is heart-breaking but also oddly uplifting, as he accepts who he is as a separate entity.
Parental relationships were a major theme throughout Phoenix’s career, partly due to his age. In Little Nikita, Running on Empty, and Mosquito Coast (the latter two must have had many parallels with Phoenix’s own life), his characters have immense loyalty to their parents, despite their questionable choices. In Stand By Me, Jimmy Reardon and his last film, Silent Tongue – his characters have complicated and resistant relationships with their fathers, railing against what they represent and striving to strike out on their own. My Own Private Idaho is a quest to find a parent relationship – Mike goes in search of his mother, but instead he finds two father-figures, in Bob and Hans, whilst being let down by two brother-like figures; Scott and Richard. Phoenix had such a complicated relationship with his own family, one can’t help but wonder if at least some of these choices were part of him processing that.
It is hard to speculate on what might have been – who is to say? All that can be said is that River Phoenix had enormous potential as an actor and a human being. I don’t want to compare his potential career to his contemporaries who have carried on without him, but all I can feel is immense sadness at what has been lost. It is hard to imagine him in the sort of roles Reeves has since taken on, for example, but who knows where his career could have taken him? As with many child actors, I wish Phoenix had had more support to help him cope with his upbringing, his fame and his addictions. I feel that awareness of Phoenix has waned over the 25 years (yikes) since his death. All I can say is that a tour through Phoenix’s work is worthwhile not only for his extraordinary performances, but also as an important document of the 80s and early 90s. The concerns seem archaic and insignificant now, but provide some important context for our present-day worries. River Phoenix was a beautiful soul whose death had a huge impact on me. I would encourage you to seek out his work, particularly his masterpiece, My Own Private Idaho.