Wednesday, July 2, 2008

River Phoenix [1970-1993]


I first encountered River Phoenix in the film "Stand By Me," in which he was 15 years old. This movie propelled him into a successful acting career and has become a minor modern classic. In my opinion, Phoenix successfully established his on-screen persona in that film and from then on it didn't change much. He was always simultaneously very human, unassuming, and inexplicably charming, with some deep and distant quality. He was one of the few Hollywood actors with real character and personality. Comparisons have been made to Johnny Depp and even to James Dean. In fact, River Phoenix reminds me a lot of a modern day James Dean, both in the way that he carried himself and in the way his life turned out.

Phoenix died in 1993 of a drug overdose while at the peak of a promising career. He was starting to get a lot of recognition and he still seemed to be maintaining his individuality and sincerity through all of that. He was doing a lot of independent and experimental films, the likes of "Dogfight" and "My Own Private Idaho." These things don't explain the drug addiction or possible depression which apparently were plaguing him around the time of his death. I think his problems were connected with his family history. When he was very young his parents were in a cult and moved to South America for a few years. Phoenix made allusions several times to the possibility that he was molested or abused in this cult, having said that the cult is "disgusting...they're ruining people's lives." Perhaps this is what led to his drug problem and to his unexpected death.

When he overdosed he was in the company of his brother Joaquin, sister Rain and actress Samantha Mathis. The entire Phoenix family, by the way, seem to have been child prodigies, like something out of a Salinger story. Joaquin Phoenix has gone on to have, arguably, an even more successful career than River Phoenix (although most would agree he lacks the mysterious charm of his brother) and the three girls in the family are involved in acting and rock bands. The entire family are activists for different causes, most notably of P.E.T.A. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), to which both River and Joaquin significantly contributed. River Phoenix himself also was a musician and wrote a fair number of songs, many of them for his band Aleka's Attic (see below for YouTube videos of this music).

River Phoenix acted in upwards of 11 films and I've seen only about half of them. Of the films I've seen, his most notable roles were in "Stand By Me" (1986) and "Dogfight" (1991). "Dogfight," which is possibly my favorite movie of all time, is about a young guy in the marines (Phoenix) who is in San Francisco for one last night before being shipped out to Vietnam. He meets a homely but sweet girl who is fond of folk music. They spend the evening together walking around and talking. Although he initially asked her out as a joke, he eventually falls in love with her and she changes his outlook on life a bit. And then he leaves. It's a really good film and definitely worth seeing and Phoenix does the best 89 minutes of acting I may have ever seen. That same year Phoenix starred in "My Own Private Idaho." I just watched this film and I can't say I liked it much. He was interesting in it, but the film itself, which is considered avant-garde, dealt with themes of gay prostitution and homelessness and made for a pretty rough watching experience without many redeeming qualities.

7 comments:

tjb said...

Wow, a great talent I haven't thought about in a long time. The thing called love was a decent "chick flick," but an excellent performance by a maturing Phoenix, a very believable character. Check out Natalie Merchant's song "River" off tigerlilly, a good dedication.

Anonymous said...

I agree...Dogfight is a wonderful, under-rated film that shows you what a great actor River was destined to be had he not died at age 23. I really think you should have another look at My Own Private Idaho. I know the subject matter can be a little off-putting for some, but River's performance is absolutely stunning. A total crime he was not nominated for an Oscar. Thanks for focusing some attention on one of the good people who walked this earth...who should be remembered for his many talents and not how he died.

Lastwaltzer said...

Just watched stand by me the other night.

Anonymous said...

I am in absolute agreement concerning River Phoenix and his demons. Sexual expression was condoned within the confines of this cult between children with children and children with adults. He was quoted that he was tired of see sexual organs in his face. The poor child was 3 years old and lived in South America for several years before his parents decided that "fishy flirting" wasn't for them. It was David Berg's, the cult leader, sick practice of advocating sexual intercourse to gain influence and converts. I don't think River's parents witnessed their son being molested but I believe it happened. There have been numerous tragedies associated with children exposed to David Berg, to include suicide. River was blessed with talent, his parents, mainly the mother was strong enough to see the light and the potential in her children, Things paid off. But the tragedy was fame, fortune and security. It took priority over the deep seated issues of sexual abuse that River never confronted and repressed. It was later manifested in self destructive behavior. He loved acting because it allowed him to escape being River. He was quoted as saying something like I am nothing and I am worthless.
I think River was victimized from the moment he was born.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite John Frusciante songs includes River:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrQtwCOJWP4

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Algo que no tengas ya said...

Oh my god, i'm a spanish girl, i like so much river phoenix, i see the film stand by me ilove him!
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