My father woke me that Sunday morning in 1993 with the news that River Phoenix was gone. I was fifteen at the time and many pictures of River I'd ripped from magazines hung on the walls of my room. In sadness and disbelief, I spent the day in bed watching the news unfold on TV. So many clips from interviews and scenes from his movies flashed across the screen as I sat there wishing it were all a dream. His face and that soft, distinctive voice had become so familiar by then. It was difficult to see him so full of life knowing that these images were all we had left of him now. Later, I would be comforted by the fact that these roles he brought to life in his too short career would allow him to live forever. He left us with many wonderful performances worth revisiting.
In his twenty three years on Earth, River Phoenix became a highly acclaimed and respected actor. While he was certainly easy on the eyes, he also had an astonishing talent and an apparent wisdom beyond his years. There was a sensitivity he brought to a role that other actors of his generation lacked the maturity to portray. I first saw him where most people did, as Chris Chambers in Rob Reiner's 1986 movie Stand By Me. Even as a teenager River appeared to take on the role of the revered leader with ease. The presence he created as Chris assured you that as long as he was around everyone would be okay. Yet it was the vulnerability River brought to the character that truly resonated. A vulnerability I think exists in all of his performances, making each of his characters feel all the more human and relatable.
River created a number of genuinely likable guys on film, beginning as early as The Explorers in 1985. While many of these early roles are similar in their journey of youthful discovery, the quirky and comedic Devo in 1990's I Love You to Death marks a turn toward more adult roles and an intent to seek out different parts from those he'd played before. From an outside perspective his transformation from child actor to leading man appeared to happen seamlessly. Perhaps it was due to the confident way in which he carried himself or that he had always seemed mature beyond his years. Regardless, he went on to hold his own with revered actors the likes of Sidney Poitier (Little Nikita), Harrison Ford (The Mosquito Coast), and Robert Redford (Sneakers). Were he still with us today I have no doubt that his work would be listed on the same level as these respected actors.
In 1991, as a fan of both River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, my teenage dream came true with a movie called My Own Private Idaho. At only fourteen, there was no way I was going to let the fact that I was maybe too young to watch, let alone understand a Gus Van Sant movie about male hustlers stop me from seeing it. So, my sister and I told our parents a little white lie and headed to the only theater we could find that was playing it. To this day I think River's portrayal of Mike Waters is the most riveting of his career. The scene around the campfire where he tells Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) how he feels about him aches with so much need for love and acceptance that your heart breaks for him. Even now that I've grown out of my teenage crushes, when I watch this movie the chemistry between River and Keanu is so unguarded and genuine that you can't help but hope for Scott to always be there to take care of Mike. My Own Private Idaho may very well be the role of River's career. It's an unforgettable and brilliant performance. One that gives us a glimpse of the future performances that could have been.
A personal favorite of mine is one of River's last films—The Thing Called Love. There's something about his performance in this movie that seemed different from the ones that came before it—a kind of distance or disconnect. I can't (won't) comment on the choices he made in his personal life that ultimately took him from this world, but I do think the toll was most apparent in this movie. That said, I still love the shy, socially awkward nature of the character. There's also a complexity there that makes him (almost) unlikable. The Thing Called Love also allowed River the opportunity to show off his musical ability and, boy, could that boy sing! The moments where he's playing music actually seem to be the most joyful for him here and that's more than enough reason to bring me back to it from time to time.
River's been gone now as many years as he was with us, but he will never be forgotten. Pieces of him live on in the characters he created. We're lucky to have them to revisit whenever we like. There's only one movie of his that I've never seen—A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. I often think about sitting down to watch it, but in the end I always choose not to. I kind of like that there's still one character out there that I have to look forward to. Ninety minutes of River Phoenix I have yet to see. For now I'll just keep revisiting the others, including the one that remains my favorite of them all—Running on Empty. A performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, and who can say how many of those he would've received—and probably won—by now.
There's an added weight of sadness during River's final scene in Stand By Me whenever I watch it now. As Gordie (Wil Wheaton) and Chris say their goodbyes the voice-over tells of Chris' future and his eventual death. River waves goodbye and disappears before our eyes, taking with him all of his magnificent promise. The end of Running on Empty evokes a similar sadness. The last image is River waving goodbye to his family and standing alone in the road, his whole life stretched out before him. As the screen fades to black the voices singing along to James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" speak for us all as they echo the line, "I always thought that I'd see you again..."
Rest in peace, River.