‘I said your name,
I wore it like a badge of teenage film stars.
Hash bars, cherry mash and tinfoil tiaras.’
E-bow The Letter – REM’s tribute to River Phoenix
This Halloween, it will be 25 years since the world lost River Phoenix, the bright young star whose light was dimmed by drugs and by his own demons, who died at the young age of 23 on a dark Hollywood pavement amid a crowd of onlookers.
Often just seen now as a cautionary tale, one of a whole raft of young actors who were eaten up and spat out by the Hollywood machine, the fact that River showed such huge talent from such a young age has been largely forgotten by many. He was more than just a actor. He was someone who put his family and friends first and who never failed to use his time in the spotlight to help others, and to highlight human and animal rights issues.
In a film career that lasted only 8 years, River made an impact that should still be felt all these decades later.
As a young boy, River fell into acting out of necessity. Raised in the infamous Children of God cult until he was five, he, his siblings and the other children were often sent into the streets to perform and hand out leaflets for the group. These years involved a lot of travelling around, and a lot of poverty and deprivation. The family moved 40 times before River was 18, when he earned enough to buy a permanent home for them.
Always defensive about his upbringing, River never talked much about his childhood within the Children of God, except to put a positive spin on the constant travelling, learning and new experiences. The cult and its leader David Berg have long been connected with allegations of child sexual abuse and for the act of ‘flirty fishing’, in which female members were sent to lure in male converts with the promise of sex. River’s parents moved the Phoenix family out of the cult when it began to focus on sex as a tool to recruiting new members. River never spoke of any abuse he may have been victim of but he did make allusions to losing his virginity as a young boy and about seeing more sex than a child should. These were events he later said he had blocked out.
Once the family left the cult, the public performances continued in order to raise money to live. Eventually River and his sister Rain began winning talent contests and after vague interest from a family friend in the acting business, the whole family packed up and moved to Hollywood. For everyone in River’s life, there was never any doubt that he would be a star.
Over the next few years, River worked his way up the hard way, auditioning every day, and nabbing commercials, then tiny TV roles, then bigger TV roles. His career was a family affair and he worked, as did his young siblings, so that they could eat and pay rent. His parents, Arlyn and John, supported their children and managed their careers. For River, he was ‘the frontman’, using his face and fame to give the family a voice, and to be able to speak out about issues they felt strongly about. He later used his musical career in much the same way.
After finally landing a feature film, Explorers, at the age of 15, River’s star had finally risen.
For River Phoenix, being a film star was his day job. It was a talent that came naturally to him and having no formal training meant that even as a child, every performance was raw and heartfelt. Like all great performers, he had the rare skill of being able to open himself up on screen and make a deep connection with his audience with every scene. No-one ever referred to him as a young actor with ‘potential’—his gift was there from the start, powerful and immense and larger than life.
Over the years, River grew up within his films. He experienced friendships with other child actors on the set of Stand By Me, found love while filming Running On Empty (for which he was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe), broke hearts with Little Nikita, explored his own sexuality in the artistic cult classic My Own Private Idaho, and became a teen idol through A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon.
He remained as normal a boy as it was possible to be. He had always had a lot of freedom, his parents famously treating their children as equals from a young age. With success and money came more responsibility at home, and he was often seen as the head of the household, even as a teenager. River bought his family a large ranch in Florida, where he spent his time between films, hanging out with his friends and trying to live a normal life.
His girlfriends were never glossy supermodel types, but instead intellectuals who shared his interests in activism and animal rights. He spent a lot of time using his fame to put forward his beliefs in political and environmental issues, and worked tirelessly for PETA.
Through it all, River’s first love was music. His band Aleka’s Attic was his real passion, and he continued to act in order to fund his musical pursuits. His friends report that they barely even saw River learn lines. Whenever he wasn’t doing his ‘day job’ they hung out in the studio he had built at the Phoenix family home and made music. The last five years of his life were spent working on a record that was almost finally finished just before his death, but was never released.
‘It’s like feeling like the invisible man. You start disintegrating. You can’t see yourself, and you feel like you’re being absorbed into this big blob of glitter.’
– River on living in Hollywood
Around the time of filming My Own Private Idaho in 1990, when River was 20, people around him noted that he seemed to be acquiring an alcohol problem, and that he was recreationally using drugs. He reportedly attended AA meetings around then but didn’t talk to friends or colleagues about it, and his work never suffered.
It was Hollywood’s biggest secret that its famously fresh-faced clean-living son was on a downward spiral. By all accounts he quickly progressed to heroin and by early 1993, had a serious addiction.
River’s unfinished last film, Dark Blood, seems to epitomise his downfall. The title is accurate in many ways. Unlike his other films, in which his characters, though often victims, always have the spiritual strength to rise above their situations, Dark Blood is difficult to watch.
His co-star Judy Davis said that the film seemed doomed from the start, plagued by one difficulty after another. No-one was enjoying the shoot, and several of the actors struggled with the director. River purportedly stated, ‘Somebody’s going to die on this film,’ and began to doubt his future within the industry.
In these final scenes of his life, River looks older than his mere 23 years. He’s thin and washed out, and with dyed black hair, looks less than healthy. Without his blonde sun-kissed locks and California/Florida tan, this is a very different River to the all-American child star the world was used to. Partly it is the character of Boy, a murderous loner living out in the desert with nothing but a cave shrine for company. Partly it is the toll of his lifestyle and the loss of youth.
According to the director of photography, Ed Lachman, during that last day of filming the cave scene, the backdrop a shrine all lit by candles, he accidentally let the camera run on a few minutes after the end of the scene. When watching the dailies back, they saw River standing silently ‘in front of the camera, just a silhouette lit by ambient light. It was eerie. People were crying. We knew that was the last we would see of River.’
‘He just looks like he’s sleeping.’
– Joaquin Phoenix’s 911 call
Halloween of 1993 was a darker day than usual. Already synonymous with death and spirits, the day was only an hour old when it saw the young actor close his eyes for the last time on a dirty pavement in front of the Viper Room.
On the night of the 30th, after filming all day for Dark Blood, filming a particularly beautiful scene in which his acting gift still shines through like a beacon, despite allegedly being high, River met his girlfriend Samantha Mathis, brother Joaquin, and sister Rain at Johnny Depp’s Hollywood Club.
Exactly what happened in the club that night is still conjecture, but it resulted in River accidentally overdosing and going into cardiac arrest in the street outside the club. 23 years earlier, he had been born in a cabin in Oregon, with a group of onlookers from the commune his parents were part of watching every moment. Now he was dying the same way, alone in a crowd of strangers. Despite a quick ambulance response, he died in hospital shortly after.
Immediately, River become a martyr, a stereotypical victim of the trappings of Hollywood fame, yet another child actor who couldn’t hack the pressure. His talent is already largely forgotten within the younger generations, not having starred in any big-budget family film they may have encountered.
Maybe they see him as just another beautiful poster boy, frozen in time and youth in front of the camera, without ageing or bad career choices to dull his star.
Former girlfriend Martha Plimpton was more realistic in her summation. ‘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.’
River Phoenix was a star in every sense of the word, a kind soul who gave to everyone, who brightened the lives of everyone who knew him, and whose spirit shines through the screen in every scene.
He was also a sweet, messed-up boy, who hid his demons and suppressed his childhood traumas until they rose up and destroyed him.
Now, 25 years later, we should remember him for his talent, his passion, his activism, his music, and for the joy his films still bring.