I’m guessing most people my age remember River Phoenix from either Stand By Me or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, both of which are fantastic, basically evergreen movies. I first discovered him in high school through My Own Private Idaho. I’ve long been a film nerd, but that movie was a turning point for me in terms of what movies could do, and was one of the first times I’d had an onscreen performance transport me into another time and space. At the time, I tuned in only to how surreal the movie was—now, I marvel at how real Phoenix made it.
It still stands as evidence that Phoenix understood people from “the other side.” His narcoleptic street hustler character in Idaho was at the center of a storm of male prostitution, crime, abuse, addiction and poverty. I see now that only personal experience could’ve led to a performance that strong. More sad is that the role might’ve spurred Phoenix’s heroin and cocaine abuse—perhaps as character research—that would eventually lead to his overdose and heart failure in front of The Viper Room in West Hollywood on Halloween, 1993.
What’s certainly true is that River Phoenix has one of the most rarefied origin stories young Hollywood has ever seen. He was born on August 23rd, 1970 in Oregon to parents he described as “hippieish”—but they wouldn’t stay there long. They went on to Caracas, Venezuela as missionaries for a new-age Christian cult called Children of God (now renamed Family International), before moving back to Florida.
All told, his family moved more than 40 times by the time he was 18. He moved to LA when he was nine and started singing on street corners with his siblings (sister Rain and now-also-famous brother Joaquin) to support his family. He and his siblings were discovered that way by late power-agent Iris Burton (famous for representing the Olson Twins, Drew Barrymore and other child stars), who signed them all.
He started acting when he was 10, and quickly became a teen sensation. At 16, he starred in Stand by Me; The Washington Post called him the “center of gravity” of the film. Asked about that role, Phoenix said that he’d identified with the psychologically-troubled character so much that if he hadn’t had his family to return to after the shoot, he would’ve likely needed to start seeing a psychiatrist.
Throughout his career, Phoenix often reportedly had trouble distancing himself from the characters he played. In all, Phoenix was an unlikely Hollywood superstar. There was his unusual history, his aversion to eye contact, his thoughtful demeanor. Physically, he had an almost feminine quality that was at odds with his grunge inspired fashion sense that was in vogue at the time.
His unconventional childhood no doubt had lasting effects on him, from his public image and personal politics to his otherworldly screen presence. He was a sensitive soul and a life-long vegan, as his parents taught him to be. When he was 15 and dating then-girlfriend Martha Plimpton, he once fled a restaurant they were eating at in tears after she’d ordered soft-shell crabs, distraught that he hadn’t “impressed on [her]what was right.”
Throughout the 1980s the media reinforced his squeaky-clean, family friendly image, and perhaps played down all his inner contradictions (his wealth vs. his ascetic upbringing, his worldliness vs. his lack of formal education and so on). It’s unclear exactly when he started drinking, though Idaho director Gus Van Sant later said that it remained Phoenix’s most serious substance abuse problem (though Van Sant brushed off Phoenix’s drug use as only occasional).
A recent book on Phoenix’s death reveals that he was careful to hide the extent of his addictions for fear that they would ruin his career. Around the time Idaho came out (when he was 21), Phoenix reportedly started experimenting with marijuana, cocaine and heroin as well. By the end, Phoenix turned out to be a better actor than even those close to him could’ve predicted.
On the night of his death, Phoenix was set to play at the Viper Room alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as he also had a passion for music. Unfortunately, the performance didn’t happen—he collapsed outside the club beside his brother and sister, convulsing on the sidewalk. Joaquin called 911, and Phoenix was rushed to Cedars-Sinai with bassist Flea in the front of the ambulance. When he got there, paramedics couldn’t resuscitate him. He died at 1:51 am; he was only 23 years old.
After his death, a frenzied media began jockeying for an angle. A 1993 headline from The Independent is particularly revealing in asking “how on earth” the “purest of all child stars” could’ve died of a drug overdose. There was a similar sense of denial in an open letter that his mother wrote to the LA Times. In it, she maintained that her son River was “not a regular drug user,” and had been “almost never a part of the ‘club scene.'” She also asked: “How many other beautiful young souls, who remain anonymous to us, have died by using drugs recreationally?” The question is poignant, though perhaps not for the reasons she suggested.
Corey Feldman, a childhood friend of Phoenix’s who starred alongside him in Stand By Me, had the most incisive comment on the matter: “Anybody that does enough drugs to OD is somebody that’s a drug addict.” Phoenix’s autopsy revealed such high levels of morphine and cocaine in his blood the coroner couldn’t determine which had killed him.
Phoenix’s volunteerism, philanthropy and socially-conscious politics weren’t as in vogue in the excess-driven, cocaine-crazed pop culture of the 80s, and went a long way in creating a mask to hide behind. The exact origins of his or any addiction are remote and mysterious, and it’s always difficult to find a way to make meaning out of a senseless death. His art is the only really meaningful thing that remains.
The scene that most moved me in Idaho, I only just found out, was re-written by Phoenix himself. In character, Phoenix says: “If I had a normal family and a good up-bringing, then I’d be a well-adjusted person.” Still, the scene doesn’t cop out that easily—it goes on to interrogate “normal,” and how the choice to be normal comes with its own costs. The life that Phoenix led was anything but normal, but what’s less clear is how much or little effect his choices had in steering him into the sidewalk in front of the Viper Room that Halloween night.