I WAS lying in bed last Sunday morning when my clock radio blared to life with the most peculiarly dispiriting news item of the year: Federico Fellini, the extravagant emperor of Italian cinema, and River Phoenix, the inexplicably talented Hollywood heartthrob, were no more. They had died earlier that morning, within 15 minutes of each other, in Rome and Los Angeles respectively. It happens every once and a while -- people dying in uncanny pairs. Think of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Stalin and Sergei Prokofiev, Samuel Beckett and Billy Martin.
Death is a question of style, Vladimir Nabokov once wrote. The simultaneous deaths of Fellini and Phoenix were nothing if not stylish. Fellini expired after a two-week coma, passing on in the fullest sense; he now lies in state amid the sprawl of his final movie set. Meanwhile, River Phoenix, age 23, fell dead on the pavement outside a West Hollywood nightclub. For several long minutes, the drug-dimmed dunces around him thought he was replaying the narcoleptic-seizure routine he had perfected in the film "My Own Private Idaho." Clips of that same film were later used on newscasts to illustrate audiotape of his brother's frantic 911 call. Television prefers to broadcast disconcertingly healthy images of famous people the instant they die, but the River Phoenix footage came out wan and doomed.
I should probably be devoting this space to melancholy reflections on Fellini, the great man who once fused image and character and history with unparalleled imaginative force. "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2" now seem terribly remote, like 19th century novels or symphonies. It is a symptom of our own intellect-stripped society, I suppose, that Fellini received sometimes scant mention in major media outlets this past week.
But the maestro had become a monument many years before. River Phoenix's random death is the one that makes me sad. Not only because he was so nice to look at, with his soft face and sly eyes and inquisitive nose and always extraordinary hair, but because he was the only actor my age in Hollywood who had much of anything to say. Whatever was good about him is now being drowned in cloying sentiment and lurid gossip. He needs an unsentimental elegy, so here's an attempt at one.
River Phoenix gained a reputation overnight because of his industry's absolute trust in actors. Fifty years ago, movie stars were beloved the world over and powerless at home. Hollywood today is a drab, un-Fellini-esque place where directors are generally hired hands. Now one out of every three actors, it seems, not only has an ambition to direct but has fulfilled it -- Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Barbra Streisand, Tim Robbins, Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and the rest. Surrendering to the new reality, film critics have named Eastwood a major American auteur, and Costner can't be far behind.
What makes actors all-powerful is their mathematically quantified demographic rapport, and here young males possess the biggest advantage. Some, like Tom Cruise, take roles fitted to a commercial master plan, but others feel the need to branch out. Instead of strapping young hotshots, they play strapping young psychotics or strapping young homeless persons. (This would be Brad Pitt and Matt Dillon.) Ground zero in modern Hollywood is the cretinous Keanu Reeves, Phoenix's co-star in "Idaho," who has demolished a series of expensive period pictures simply by opening his mouth. As a friend of mine precisely noted, Reeves couldn't act his way into a paper bag, much less out of one.
I'm not sure how to make the case that River Phoenix was different from the other hunks. Suffice it to say that he had an instinctive sense for what kinds of characters and actions were missing from modern Hollywood, and how he could take up the slack. Yes, he relied on the same brow-furrowed nervousness that has been stock in trade for every popular young actor since Montgomery Clift and James Dean. But he also had a gift for gentleness and understatement, delivering his lines in a crisp murmur. The camera never seemed to be on his mind.
River did not play quarterbacks or fighter pilots, although he did play young Indiana Jones. For the most part, he picked out offbeat and uncertain people, anxious to belong somewhere. He had spent most of his childhood wandering North and South America with his unreconstructed hippie parents, and his teen roles neatly matched his upbringing. In "Little Nikita," he was the son of Russian spies, in "Mosquito Coast" the son of Harrison Ford's mad jungle-bound inventor; in "Running on Empty," his Academy-Award-nominated performance, he was oddly convincing as the piano-playing progeny of outlaw '60s radicals.
And in "My Own Private Idaho," the 21-year-old actor managed to make some film history. Gus Van Sant, America's leading gay director by default, had set up a self-indulgent scenario of male prostitutes hanging out on the streets of Portland, Ore. His script, or lack of one, left everything to the actors. Phoenix, signed to play a scruffy, sleepy young man named Mike, decided the movie needed a scene with an explicit gay subtext, one in which he would spell out his love for Keanu Reeves' pseudo-bisexual playboy. Around a campfire, Phoenix delivers a stammering, meek, heartfelt confession, ending with the words, "I love you and you don't pay me."
With this he dealt a blow to Hollywood's perennially brain-dead treatment of homosexual subject-matter, which currently wavers between creepy exploitation and bland condescension. By all reports a happy heterosexual, Phoenix spoke enthusiastically to the gay weekly, the Advocate, about his scene. "It wasn't an improvisation. Everything was written. The stutters, the uh's, were all written. I wrote all of it!"
The interviewer, David Ehrenstein, then speculated it was the first romantic declaration of love between men in commercial American film. "Really?" River responded. "No other time before this? That's beautiful. I'm so proud. That's great. Cool! That makes me feel good!" Not as articulate, perhaps, as the liberal patter of celebrities who tell the Advocate how comfortable they are with lesbian and gay people, and how they would certainly play a gay role if the right one came along -- but as it happens, more truthful.
Maybe his best effort came right after "Idaho," in Nancy Savoca's small gem of a film, "Dogfight." He played a Marine who goes ashore with his buddies and participates in a cruel competition, the Dogfight, in which each marine tries to pick up the ugliest girl. He is distracted by an unconventionally beautiful woman (Lili Taylor) and slowly loses touch with military camaraderie. He had an ugly military haircut at the beginning, a nascent hippie look at the end, and the emotional transformation was seamless in between. Although Phoenix often wound up in movies with a left-wing slant like this one, his performances weren't self-consciously political. The story he told in "Dogfight" was simply the shedding of boyish cruelty, with politics glinting underneath.
And, in any case, the shedding of boyish cruelty was a substantial enough story for a young actor to tell. He couldn't have done anything more constructive or more decent. One notices that American boyhood seems to be lasting well past the teenage years; it's becoming a perpetual state of mind. Kids are killers in the movies and killers in the streets, whatever the cause and effect. Stupid and violent in mass-media technicolor, modern American adolescence is not the stuff of which some young Fellini in our midst is going to make a sweetly nostalgic "Amarcord." River went against the grain with his gentle and vulnerable characters, who all say, Don't be like the other boys.
What's painful about his death is that he seems to have been caught in the arrogant, bad-boy lifestyle his film efforts dispraised. It's a reminder that Hollywood is not only the land of self-indulgence but also of self-concealment. Actors and journalists alike are imprisoned in an apparatus of biographical make-believe.
I noticed that "Hard Copy" obtained a recording of a final River Phoenix interview, in which the actor talked about "phonies" he had to deal with: "I figure that everything you say, they lie and change anyway, so maybe if you lie, give 'em bullshit, maybe for some reason it will turn out to be truthful." But the tabloid editors somehow removed the context of whatever River was really trying to say.
Alex Ross writes for the New York Times.