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.
- For anyone interested in reading more about Phoenix, a couple of biographies have been written about him. I just ordered this one, which I'm looking forward to reading.
- Here is a list of the movies he acted in and some other information.
- And here are three YouTube videos of him singing in Aleka's Attic http://youtube.com/watch?v=Td1dmddPb7Y