If he hadn’t died of a drug overdose outside a West Hollywood nightclub at the tragically young age of 23, River Phoenix would have turned 40 this week. He may not carry the iconic weight of an actor like James Dean who also died much too early, but for my generation, he was just as important.
Phoenix was around the same age as me and I grew up watching him in his early roles like Explorers and Stand By Me. Even as a child actor, it was easy to see that he stood out. There was a purity to him; an honesty that made him seem mature beyond his years. When I think of Phoenix, I remember the great director Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon) talking about a particular experience directing Phoenix in Running On Empty which captures these qualities:
Naomi Foner (writer of Running On Empty and mother to Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal), who I think is a fine, wonderful screenwriter, had written one really fake scene in the film: River’s character sits down at the piano at the girl’s house and starts noodling a little Beethoven sonata; then he becomes aware of her behind him and he goes into some boogie-woogie. Before we began, I said to Naomi, “You know this is the old Jose Iturbi bit; we’re not so square. We’re not just classical music—it’s so condescending—it’s the only dopey thing you’ve written and let’s get rid of it.” During rehearsals, Naomi held out—she wanted it and so I said: “OK, I won’t say anything. We’ll try to rehearse it and see what it feels like and looks like then.” Sure enough, as soon as I block it, River said, “Naomi, you know, this is really—this is very corny.” The sight of that seventeen-year-old arguing with this first-rate writer, twice his age, was so entrancing. You know, that purity he had just outshone anything. Naomi couldn’t resist him: she said, “OK.”
But there was also a quality to Phoenix that made me identify with him as a young Asian American male. He was definitely a good-looking guy, but there was a nerdy outsider side to him as well. In films like Dogfight, My Own Private Idaho and even the throwaway comedy of Sneakers, he tapped into that very quality and his characters spoke to me. Phoenix was the first actor of my generation I could claim as my own; who embodied all the things I was feeling. I felt like he got it.
It’s always interesting to ask what someone with such a bright future like Phoenix would have done had he lived. I suspect he would have followed a similar path as a peer like Johnny Depp who also marched to his own drummer, but still had what it took to connect with a mainstream audience. I don’t doubt Phoenix would have had a thriving career today; selectively working with the best filmmakers on projects with artistic integrity (no offense to Leo, but Phoenix would’ve taken Inception to even greater heights).
But luckily, we still have his films and among them are some bona-fide classics. Following are three of my favorites:
STAND BY ME
Most people were first introduced to River Phoenix in this 1986 coming-of-age flick where Phoenix portrayed young hood-in-training Chris Chambers. The plot revolves around Chambers and his friends’ search for the body of a boy who was struck by a train, but the heart of the film is the tragically sad Chambers who’s only bad because everyone expects him to be. There are many incredible moments throughout and most would probably choose the scene where Chambers finally breaks down in front of pal Wil Wheaton as Phoenix’s finest, but let me make an argument for Stand By Me’s ending where all Phoenix does is turn to the camera in a long shot as the film’s most powerful moment.
It’s a simple scene. The boys have returned from their quest and Phoenix says good-bye to Wheaton and walks off toward home as the adult version of Wheaton’s character tells us in voice-over what happened to Chambers: he went to college and proved everyone wrong by becoming a lawyer. But he’s killed when he’s stabbed after trying to stop a fight. At that moment, Phoenix turns to the camera, waves and simply fades away. Again, so simple with a minimum of “acting,” yet so emotionally effective because of the accumulation of the work that Phoenix has done throughout the movie to make us care. You can see this scene here at around the 7:00 mark:
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
How brilliant was it to cast River Phoenix as the young Indiana Jones in the opening scenes of the third installment of the popular franchise? The whole sequence is brilliant in itself—not only is it highly inventive and entertaining (the idea of the circus train alone is genius), but we get to learn everything we need to know about the future Dr. Jones in one swoop—why he’s afraid of snakes, how he got that scar on his chin, the origin of his bullwhip and how he found his trademark fedora—among other surprises. Phoenix clearly demonstrates all the trademarks of a future action star. It would have been interesting to see what an actor of his caliber could have brought to a modern action film.
Here’s a making of segment about Indiana Jones that focuses on Phoenix’s involvement:
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
Perhaps River Phoenix’s greatest performance in his greatest film. On the occasion of what would have been his 40th birthday (Aug 23), I pulled out my old VHS copy of this movie and watched it for the first time in probably 15 years. It still holds up in every way. Phoenix is a narcoleptic street hustler who’s in love with spoiled rich boy (and gay-for-pay prostitute) Keanu Reeves. If you want to see the extent of Phoenix’s talent, check out the following clip. Like much of Phoenix’s work, it’s so beautiful in its simplicity. It’s just a scene of Phoenix and Reeves sitting around a campfire and talking, but Phoenix turns it into a master class in how to create genuine heart break:
Happy birthday, River!