August 23, 1970– River Phoenix:
“I don’t want to die in a car accident. When I die it’ll be a glorious day. It’ll probably be a waterfall.”
When he was just three-years-old, Phoenix’s family joined a controversial Christian cult, Children Of God, as missionaries. They were sent to Caracas, Venezuela to work as missionaries and work on a farm. The cult’s leader, David Berg, prostituted the women and children to powerful and wealthy men in hopes of luring them into the group. Phoenix stated he lost his virginity when he was four-years-old while in the Children Of God, but blocked out the details.
His parents broke away from the sect in the late 1970s and moved the family moved to Florida. They changed the family name to Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, symbolizing a new beginning.
On a Halloween night in 1993, when River Phoenix died from a drug overdose outside Johnny Depp’s club, The Viper Room, he was famous, but not a household name. At just 23-years-old, he had already given vivid, accomplished performances in a dozen excellent films, including an Academy Award nomination and the National Board Of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor for playing a boy on the run with his fugitive parents in Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty (1988), and had been named Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for playing a homeless narcoleptic hustler in Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece, My Own Private Idaho (1992).
Now, 24 years later, Phoenix is rarely mentioned except as a warning to young actors who might be burning out too soon. It has been a long time since his intense, yet goofy acting style, was celebrated or even mentioned. His distinctive little brother, Joaquin Phoenix, went on to real success and a Grammy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and three Academy Award nominations, paying the morally ambivalent roles for which River had excelled.
Joaquin was with his brother at The Viper Room, along with actor Samantha Mathis, and his friends from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Butthole Surfers. They arrived at 10pm and an hour later, Phoenix was convulsed on the sidewalk after drinking a heroin and cocaine “speedball” mixed in a cocktail with a Valium chaser. Later, colleagues said that they know he had been doing drugs after finishing shooting his daily scenes for George Sluizer’s thriller Dark Blood. The film was not completed because of Phoenix’s death (it would also be Sluizer’s final film); it remained unfinished for 19 years.
Just hours after the overdose, the television news played Joaquin’s anguished 911 repeatedly. It was heartbreaking.
The lurid circumstances around Phoenix’s death made headlines, and they also eclipsed his considerable achievements. In our own era, do the young fans of Daniel Radcliffe, Ezra Miller, and Jack Gleeson realize that another actor did it first and better? At the time of his death, it seemed impossible that his reputation would last longer than his scandal. Gus van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993, with River’s sister Rain Phoenix) and his novel Pink (1997) are dedicated to him. So is REM’s album Monster (1994). Michael Stipe has said that his friend Phoenix’s death was: “The most shattering experience of my life”. Phoenix’s friends, Red Hot Chili Peppers, in their song Give It Away from Blood Sugar Sex Magik: (1991), sing: “There’s a River born to be a giver, keep you warm won’t let you shiver, his heart is never gonna wither…”, and their song Transcending from the album, One Hot Minute (1995), is a tribute to Phoenix. Natalie Merchant, Rufus Wainwright and Belinda Carlisle all wrote songs about him.
In gay writer Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Glamorama (1997), Phoenix’s ghost appears in the VIP queue at the opening of a new club. His ghost is also in Introducing Horror Hospital, a graphic novel by Dennis Cooper and Keith Mayerson. Ellis’ and Cooper’s inclusion cemented Phoenix’s status as a Gay Icon, and of course there are those tender kissing scenes with Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho.
In Dogfight (1991) directed by Nancy Savoca, Phoenix plays a young U.S. Marine on the night before he was shipped off to Vietnam 1963. The role was so radically different from the gentle person that he was, that it caused him a lot of distress. During filming, Phoenix admitted that he had sex with another male actor as preparation for playing a gay guy in My Own Private Idaho.
Depp and his band P, featuring Flea, were onstage at The Viper Club that night. They were performing a song titled Michael Stipe while Phoenix was outside having seizures on the sidewalk. When the news filtered through the club, Flea left the stage and rushed outside and tried to revive him, staying with him in the ambulance.
The next day, The Viper Club became a shrine to Phoenix with fans leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the sidewalk and graffiti messages on the walls of the club. It remained closed for a week. Depp continued to close it every year on October 31 until selling the building in 2004.
Phoenix made the fun caper film Sneakers (1992) with Robert Redford. and he was heartbroken when Redford chose Brad Pitt for his film A River Runs Through It (1992). Van Sant had slated him to play Andy Warhol in a biopic about the artist when he was young, and Cleve Jones in his first incarnation of Milk in the early 1990s. He was going to portray the gay poet Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse (1995), which was eventually filmed with Leonardo DiCaprio. Phoenix was due to begin shooting Neil Jordan’s Interview With The Vampire (1994) two weeks after his death.
Phoenix was the right actor for daring work with independent directors such as Van Sant and Savoca, but he could hold his own in mainstream films like Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989).
In one of his roles, in Stand By Me (1986) Phoenix plays a tough kid who knows he deserves better than his dead-end future, but is smart enough to realize he won’t get it. In his final scene, he dissolves into air as the narrator reveals that his character later dies in early adulthood.
Ironically for an actor so close to his family, he specialized in playing a son of fractured families in The Mosquito Coast (1986), Little Nikita (1988) and Running On Empty, and finding out that his brother is also his father in My Own Private Idaho.
His picture was torn from the teen mags and pinned to the bedroom walls of young gays and girls, but his heart-throb status seemed to vex him as much as the environmental evils that he worked so hard to bring to the public’s attention. Phoenix was a lifelong vegan and dedicated animal rights activist. He was a spokesperson for PETA and he wrote an article about Earth Day for Seventeen Magazine.
I made a film with Phoenix, I Love You To Death (1990), also with his friend Keanu Reeves. We didn’t have scenes together, and I only saw him on set briefly. He seemed way too shy to approach. He was beautiful, with a high, broad forehead, crinkly almond-shaped eyes and full pouty lips.
His ex-girlfriend, the great actor Martha Plimpton, his costar in Running On Empty, wrote:
“He was just a boy. A very good-hearted boy who was very fucked-up and had no idea how to implement his good intentions.”
He was a good-hearted, fucked-up boy who has now been dead longer than he was alive. Kurt Cobain became an icon in death, but Phoenix seems to have faded away. He would have been 47-years-old today, but I am not certain he was made for these ugly times.