It’s been 25 years since River Phoenix died. Officially, he has been dead longer than he was ever alive. For a generation, he was the ultimate leading man: Sensitive, quiet, intensely handsome, dedicated to his craft, and so very much not like the other guys of his era. If you’ve ever seen a tatty ‘child stars all grown up’ T.V. special or listicle of stars who were taken from us too soon, the chances are you’ve seen River Phoenix included among the ranks. He seems so prescient now as an actor and persona. As today’s teens flock to actors like Timothée Chalamet and musicians like Harry Styles, Phoenix’s floppy-haired natural charm and sensitivity feel like a precursor to a new generation of adolescent idols. His contemporaries still talk of his gargantuan talent, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Ethan Hawke. You can’t read a single interview with his younger brother that doesn’t feature at least one mention of River. He was already close to legend before he died, but now River Phoenix is almost beyond myth. It’s no surprise to me that today’s teens have rediscovered him through iconography on Tumblr.
I grew up watching a lot of River Phoenix movies because my mum was a fan. Stand By Me remains a family favourite as well as a defining piece of pop culture in my life. My mum seemed to know everything about River, including his unique upbringing. Every profile talks about his hippie parents, their time in the abusive Children of God cult, the street performances he and his siblings would do to make money, and how they became a compact acting dynasty once they reached Los Angeles. They talk less about his claim that he ‘lost his virginity’ at the age of four. The pressures of financially providing for his family as a teenager are glossed over.
It has become near impossible to talk about River Phoenix in terms that aren’t unbearably tragic: How do you contextualize a life that ended in such an undeniably horrific way without making that the defining characteristic? I wanted to find an interview with Phoenix to embed in this post and 5 seconds on YouTube searching his name provided multiple screenshots of his corpse, conspiracy videos linking his death to Pizzagate, a ‘medium’ claiming to have contacted him over the grave, and of course, that 911 call.
Phoenix didn’t do many movies but the ones he was great in are earth-shaking: Think of his heart-wrenching subtleties in My Own Private Idaho or his tearful confession in Stand By Me or even his surprisingly good action chops as young Indiana Jones. That may be why it hurt so much when he wasn’t good, but it was also in part because addiction had taken its hold. In his review of The Thing Called Love, Roger Ebert cannot ignore the warning signs the curse of hindsight offered:
‘In Phoenix’s first scene, it is obvious he’s in trouble. The rest of the movie only confirms it, making “The Thing Called Love” a painful experience for anyone who remembers him in good health. He looks ill - thin, sallow, listless. His eyes are directed mostly at the ground. He cannot meet the camera, or the eyes of the other actors. It is sometimes difficult to understand his dialogue. Even worse, there is no energy in the dialogue, no conviction that he cares about what he is saying.’
The flipside is that history is the ultimate washing of the dirty slate. As easy as it is to find the ceaselessly tragic fetishizing of Phoenix’s life and death, there are plenty of others willing to pretend none of that happened and deify him as something beyond human: The sensitive hippie who was too pure for this world. Neither narrative feels fair or faithful, but can you blame anyone for wanting to avoid either? It’s easy to break River Phoenix down to his basic components - his veganism, the blonde hair that covered half his face, his music, his shunning of the limelight - and turn to idolatry. It’s easy to look at him and say that ‘he wasn’t like the other guys.’ It may be preferable to admitting how much his life reads like decades of Hollywood history.
The truth is I don’t really know how to talk about River Phoenix. His work cannot be separated from his life, his persona, his private demons, and ultimately his death. It will always be contextualized in those terms, fairly or otherwise, and to break away from that can’t help but feel dishonest on some level. I was wasting some time on YouTube one night and found a VH1 special on the greatest child stars, recorded some time in 2004. Before it even got to River Phoenix, there were countless examples of young actors who became addicted to drugs or saw their lives fall apart once the spotlight left them. He wasn’t the only one who died young. Indeed, it seemed like a child star default mode.
In my brighter moments, I like to imagine the alternate timeline where Phoenix lived and got his act together. It’s so invitingly easy to fantasize about the best case scenarios, one where he got over his addiction and went on to make films with great auteurs, establishing himself as the acting force of his generation. One can quietly envision him in the roles DiCaprio landed, or in the parts he was supposed to play before he died (including Christian Slater’s role in Interview with the Vampire). These narratives are far easier to swallow than ones where, as is dishearteningly common with drug addicts, he doesn’t get better, or garners the ‘trainwreck’ label society giddily attaches to fallen idols who need help.
Would the press have been more empathetic to his struggles back then had he lived? A paparazzi photographer famously chose not to take pictures of him as he lay dying outside the Viper Room, but someone else still chose to break into the funeral home and get some photos of his corpse for the National Enquirer. You can still hear the 911 call his brother, then age 19, made when he overdosed. I recently saw some teenagers on Twitter talking about listening to it on YouTube then wondering why they’d done so in the first place. I suppose they did it because they could. Everything else about his death is easily accessible, so why not his family’s pain as well?
There’s a whole new generation of teens finding their way to River Phoenix in fandom. I recently felt intensely old after discovering multiple Twitter users who didn’t know River and Joaquin Phoenix were related, but that seems like an inevitability of the passage of time. A whole generation of fans will only know him as an image from beyond the grave, and I don’t know how to feel about that, even though that’s really the only way I knew him. I was 3 when he died and didn’t watch his films until I was older. Nowadays, Phoenix is almost always discussed as a tragedy. His sister still leaves memorial posts on Instagram. His brother mostly refuses to talk about him in interviews, but when he is brought up, it’s typically to further extend the tragedy towards them, those who live on. River Phoenix is now a Vogue style inspiration, a name on a t-shirt, a cautionary tale, a matinee idol, the subject of multiple songs and ‘what if’ scenarios. I kind of envy people who had the ability to see him as just a great actor, but I question if such people ever existed.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.