He was 23. He is forever 23.
In those 23 years, Phoenix managed to be many things. He was a star — a serious actor with an Oscar nod for “Running on Empty,” and a cult following for “Stand by Me,” but also a heartthrob staple of Tiger Beat. He was a staunch environmentalist somewhat ahead of his time, and an outspoken animal rights activist. He was an aspiring musician with a beguiling backstory — a peripatetic childhood in a notorious cult with hippie-idealist parents and four gifted younger siblings.
His death, at the height of his fame when it seemed that so much more would come his way, was a gut punch: We’d seen this movie before. We had also seen the aftermath — all the beautiful stars who had lived fast and died young only to become larger in death, enshrined as legends.
Yet Phoenix has strangely slipped away from us — grieved but rarely celebrated anymore. His death was quickly overshadowed by Kurt Cobain’s suicide and other grunge-era tragedies; Phoenix’s movies fell off the cultural radar. The other beautiful, talented boys of his day gained gravitas and intrigue as they matured into A-list stars. It is harder than ever to imagine Phoenix in middle age, but also, perhaps, unnecessary.
At the memorial service, held in a screening room at Paramount Studios, River's mother clutched the director Rob Reiner's hand. "We believed we could use the mass media to help change the world," Heart Phoenix said, "and that River would be our missionary."
He died of speedballing but spent his life as a proselytizing vegan. He once fled a restaurant in tears after girlfriend Martha Plimpton ordered shellfish. “I drank a Diet Coke once and he was furious with me,” the actress Christine Lahti, who played his mother in “Running on Empty,” told the Los Angeles Times. “He was so adamant about clean, pure living.”
Like many teenage icons, Phoenix was slim and impossibly pretty, with a perfect ski-jump of a nose, and a blond curtain cascading over his somber face. He rarely smiled in films, early television performances or photos. Sullen was a specialty. Interviews were an exercise in pain.
Appearing before a camera “bores me and it scares the s--- out of me, to be frank,” he said during a “My Own Private Idaho” 1991 promotional interview, where he never removed his sunglasses. “That’s why, when I’m on set, I never look at the camera. I’m very frightened right now.”
The darkness, it was understandable. His parents — young, poor and searching — drifted in his early years. They took their surname from the mythical bird and christened their children with similar flair: Rain, Joaquin, Liberty, Summer. The eldest of the five children they had together was named after the river of life in Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” Hesse being the rage in the counterculture. (Their father also had an older daughter, Jodean, from a previous relationship.) When River was a toddler, the family joined the controversial Children of God religious movement, a journey that took them from Florida to Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. He later spoke of sexual abuse he suffered during his early years in that faith. His formal education was next to nonexistent. When the family broke away from the cult and landed in Los Angeles, the children sang on the streets to help earn a living. They signed with a talent agent, and Phoenix landed his first commercials at age 10.
By adolescence, Phoenix was a veteran of standard ’80s television fare — a one-season series (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”), a guest spot on “Family Ties,” an “Afterschool Special” (about dyslexia), a made-for-TV movie (domestic violence), and a miniseries (the Kennedys).
His big-screen breakthrough came in Reiner’s “Stand By Me,” a coming-of-age drama starring a passel of other young actors-to-watch, about a group of boys who discover a corpse in the woods. It was released in 1986, a few weeks before Phoenix’s 16th birthday. Phoenix looked even younger but projected the soulfulness of someone much older.
For much of his career, Phoenix was cast in the role of the son, often the son of troubled parents. He was too young to play much else.
He worked opposite Helen Mirren, Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, Dan Aykroyd, Richard Harris and a pre-stardom Sandra Bullock. His directors included such luminaries as Gus Van Sant, Steven Spielberg and the late Sidney Lumet. He holds the distinction of playing both Harrison Ford’s son, in “The Mosquito Coast,” and portraying the young version of a Harrison Ford character, in a 10-minute cameo in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Even amid such daunting company, Phoenix quickly arrived at the point where his name appeared first on the screen. “He picked me to direct. He was already attached to the movie,” marvels Nancy Savoca, who helmed his 1991 “Dogfight.” Phoenix was 19.
“He was 10 years younger than me, but he was my teacher. This was my first studio film,” Savoca says. She recalls asking for a third take on a particular scene, and Phoenix saying, “I gave it to you on both takes. The camera saw it. If you look at the dailies, you’ll see it.” She did; he was right. “He taught me how to look at actors as if I was a camera. That blew my mind.”
Phoenix “was working on a very instinctive level,” she says. “Stuff was coming from real deep from inside him. That was the part that was scary.”
His looks, and his legion of teenage fans, often caused colleagues to underestimate his talent at first. Judd Hirsch played his father in “Running on Empty,” one of Phoenix’s strongest performances. “When I first saw him, I thought, ‘This is another blond, beautiful kid,’ ” Hirsch says. “But I quickly realized this was a very, very inside person. River wasn’t just going to give something away. He was running very deep.”
Ethan Hawke, who appeared with him in “Explorers,” the first movie for both of them, said Phoenix reminded him of the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. “Sometimes you watch [Baker] and you’re not sure he’s going to live through the song,” Hawke told W magazine. “I remember I felt that way watching ‘My Own Private Idaho.’ . . . I worried for him. It was such a brilliant light, but it seemed so delicate.”
River Phoenix is sometimes compared to James Dean, another sullen, lustrous blond heartthrob whose life imploded in his early 20s.
“You can’t Google ‘River Phoenix’ without finding comparisons to James Dean — but it’s not a fair comparison,” says Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz. “Dean did just one thing. He did it great. He broke new ground. He changed how we thought about actors. But Dean was almost only angry in his movies. Phoenix was so many different things.”
Even when people don’t wish to compare Phoenix to Dean, they compare him to Dean.
“River Phoenix didn’t smolder on screen. When he was on camera, you paid attention to what he was doing. He was too pretty to smolder,” Mankiewicz says. “Dean had a danger to him that I don’t think Phoenix had.”
Dean made just three movies, but one was the cult classic “Rebel Without a Cause,” and he garnered Oscar nominations for the other two, “East of Eden” and “Giant.” Phoenix made “some pretty good movies,” Mankiewicz says, “but they’re not iconic.”
They rarely air on TCM, or on other channels. To find Phoenix, you have to go searching.
Some of his movies haven’t aged well. Others are wholly negligible, notable only for the handsome paydays they provided him. A few movies are larded with hokum. Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” features his affecting performance as a narcoleptic gay hustler, but it’s periodically disrupted by a semi-Shakespearean band of drug addicts, to ill effect. A lot of Phoenix’s work comes across now as dark, grainy and muffled — from an earlier generation of film that no one got around to enhancing. They’re best enjoyed as memories.
His best performances — “Idaho,” “Running on Empty,” “Dogfight,” “Stand By Me” — are rarely watched or cited. Perhaps they were just too subtle, too serious, too much of his era to land in the heavy rotation required to nurture a legend’s embers. Phoenix never had a John Hughes movie, a superhero flick, a “Ghostbusters” or “Dead Poets Society.” He was too methodical to work in catchphrases.
His peers — Hawke, Leonardo DiCaprio, Keanu Reeves, and Johnny Depp — kept working. They’re middle-aged and somewhat wrinkled, having successfully transitioned from young phenomena to Hollywood heavyweights.
DiCaprio became Martin Scorsese’s go-to guy. And soon he became everyone’s go-to guy. Depp built, and then blew, a $650 million fortune. His daughter dates one of today’s burgeoning talents, Timothée Chalamet, who turns 23 this year. Martha Plimpton, Phoenix’s long-ago girlfriend and co-star, has performed extensively on stage and television, including a sitcom role as a grandmother.
Joaquin Phoenix, younger by four years, was 19 when he helped carry his brother out of the Viper Room. He’s 44 now, an acting titan who never had to bother with teen celebrity, the crush of adoring fans. Joaquin built the career — indelible roles, splendid scripts, great directors, a trio of Oscar nominations — that actors dream of, that perhaps his older brother dreamed of.
Phoenix’s official cause of death was “acute multiple drug intoxication.” The Los Angeles coroner found high concentrations of cocaine and morphine — heroin — in his system, as well as Valium, marijuana and ephedrine, an ingredient in over-the-counter cold medications.
This was surprising to many people. Maybe it should not have been.
“People talk about him having such a clean life. I think that’s not right. . . . He didn’t die from carrot juice,” his publicist told The Washington Post after his autopsy. “This place, Los Angeles, is poison, especially for someone who’s grown up in an isolated part of the world — in an idealistic world — and then comes here. This place is too much. We’re a town of excess.”
Those closest to him, it seems, were among the first to resist letting Phoenix be made into a martyr or a ghoulish touchstone. “He’s become a metaphor for a fallen angel, a messiah. He wasn’t,” Plimpton said in Esquire not long after his death — just a good-hearted, messed-up kid who “had no idea how to implement his good intentions.”
Tourists still flock to the Viper Room to see where Phoenix spent his final hours. Many visitors apparently believe that Depp — enshrined in a photo behind glass near the bar — is still a co-owner, but he disposed of his share more than a dozen years ago. The club has been bought and sold several times, most recently this summer in an $80 million deal bundled with several adjacent properties.
“The Viper Room is going to continue to be part of West Hollywood nightlife and music history,” says Jim Cooper of REM Finance, who represents the unnamed new owners, who are “gathering information and trying to figure out what to potentially do there.”
This Halloween, the 25th anniversary of Phoenix’s death, the all-girl rock trio Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re from Japan is scheduled to play. Cover is $10.
There are no official plans to commemorate Phoenix — that’s not the way the Viper Room rolls — but fans often appear on the last night of October outside the club’s Sunset entrance with candles and notes, wine bottles and teddy bears to create a sidewalk memorial. “It’s beautifully sad,” notes general manager Tommy Black, as a way of honoring a star who has now been dead longer than he was alive.