My Love-Hate Relationship with River Phoenix

by Kellie M. Walsh

21 September 2009


Then in September 1991, My Own Private Idaho was released.

Then in September 1991, My Own Private Idaho was released. Fifteen years before Heath Ledger would make waves in the major-market release of Brokeback Mountain, Phoenix was wowing arthouses around the world with his portrayal of a gay hustler in search of his mother. His character’s narcolepsy had every risk of reading as comedic, but Phoenix played him with such frankness that each initial giggle in the audience was replaced by sheepish wincing. His character floated through the film like a bubble, held together by only tension, momentum, and unfulfilled need; you couldn’t help but hold your breath waiting for the inevitable.

Sitting in the theater, I finally got it. I finally understood what made River Phoenix special. He had the singular ability to portray real, honest emotion in all its vast ugliness. His nose ran; his body twitched; his voice cracked and stuttered. At times, he was barely audible. But with a choppy, sotto voce delivery, he gave audiences an unpleasant, unsatisfying, cathartic release by revealing all the pain and fear and frustration that they fought so hard to hide.

As in Stand by Me, Phoenix’s shining moment in My Own Private Idaho occurred in the form of a fireside confession. That confession is additionally notable as Phoenix himself wrote it.

His performance wasn’t perfect—he still couldn’t play happy convincingly, and some of his choices were inexplicable—but he had something, an instinct, an ability to make himself transparent. He wasn’t just vulnerable; he was laid bare. As Peter Weir said, “Laurence Olivier never had what River had.” He wasn’t just some teen heartthrob; he was one of the few artists to come out of the 80s who not only had the chance to survive the decade but to transcend it. River Phoenix would be the James Dean that lived.

A little after one a.m. on October 31, 1993, River Phoenix died of acute multiple drug intoxication. He collapsed into seizures on the sidewalk of the Viper Room, a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. He never woke up. Toxicology reports concluded that he had ingested “many times the lethal levels” of both cocaine and heroin. At the age of 23, Hollywood’s golden boy was dead of an overdose.

I don’t remember where I was when I heard the news. I don’t remember what I was doing. I didn’t witness the media frenzy that surrounded his death or hear the frantic 911 call of his 19-year-old brother Joaquin make the rounds on radio stations and news broadcasts. I was in my first semester at college. I remember a memorial in the campus alternative newspaper. I remember a few girls my age holding each other on the steps outside the student center. I was 18 years old.

I don’t remember being shocked, though I suspect that I was. I don’t remember crying, though I suspect that I might have. Instead what I remember is what I felt every time I heard Phoenix’s name or saw his face for years after.

I thought he was an idiot.

I could not believe that someone so bright could do something so stupid. That someone so gifted, so valuable, could do something so reckless. I could not believe that someone so often praised for his positive, healthful, anti-establishment ways could die such an ugly, tawdry, clichéd death.

It was Jimmy Reardon all over again. Sadness was overshadowed by anger, and once again, I felt like I was staring at evidence that Phoenix was a con artist, a hypocrite. I had spent all those years resisting his charms, and now I felt lied to. I felt betrayed.

I felt duped.

I wasn’t alone. For months, magazines and newspapers ran articles and cover stories about Phoenix; he was still making headlines into the following April until Kurt Cobain’s untimely demise took center stage. Some journalists canonized Phoenix as a martyr of Hollywood, a bright star tarnished by the corruption of the industry; others were much less kind. The panting tone of earlier reports was replaced with a cold resentment. One journalist eschewed the milder word “body,” opting instead to refer to Phoenix alternately as “the cadaver” and “the corpse.” Many voices, both professional and not, concluded that Phoenix had done it to himself, that he had gotten what he deserved. I probably said the same, too.

I was an idiot.

I didn’t know River Phoenix. I knew nothing of his life or his circumstances save for what little I had read in magazines. Yet I felt comfortable, righteous even, to judge him not for who he was but who I thought he was—who I expected he was rather—based on spotty information gleaned when he was a teenager. Phoenix had grown up, but my perception of him hadn’t grown with him. Neither had a lot of headlines.

Had I known then what I know now, maybe I wouldn’t have been so harsh. I hadn’t seen how he had taken to lying in interviews in fantastic ways or how his signature sensitivity and courtesy had been largely replaced by scorn and disdain. I hadn’t known that his drug use was a well-known secret in Hollywood. I hadn’t yet lived through my own close friend’s addiction. Had I known better, maybe I would have been kinder. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so shocked.

River Phoenix screwed up. He really, really screwed up. He was 23 years old, and he made a bad decision, and that bad decision cost him his life. I don’t think he took that into consideration ahead of time; I think he just acted. Like most 23-year-olds—and most addicts—he didn’t think, he just did.

Do I excuse him of his responsibility? No. Whether or not he considered the possible outcomes, he loaded the gun, put it to his head, and pulled the trigger. But I also think the pendulum has swung too far in reaction. Belushi speedballed his way into an early grave; Cobain literally put a gun to his head; but Phoenix flouted popular expectation, and by doing so, has been largely forgotten. For all the critical praise of his talents, for all the dedications and tributes that followed for months after, today Phoenix is reduced to a lame, tasteless punch line on an episode of Family Guy. His death has overshadowed his life.

I’ve read a lot about Phoenix in the past couple of weeks. I know more about him now than I ever did while he was alive, yet I still don’t really know who River Phoenix was. After reading and listening to those close to him talk, I’m not sure many of them really know either. But as co-star and former girlfriend Martha Plimpton pointed out, Phoenix wasn’t a metaphor or a messiah: “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.”

Early on, Phoenix had become the poster child for idealism and clean living, and he just couldn’t shake that reputation. The world wanted him an icon; instead they got an anti-hero, a series of contradictions that Ian Parker aptly described in The Independent as “the clean-living drug user ... the child star with sex appeal, the millionaire son of non-materialistic parents, the actor who really wanted to be a musician, the vegan who ate Mars bars, the dropout who could tap-dance, and the sage who knew almost nothing.”

In other words, Phoenix was human. When I was 18, and for quite a long time after, I failed to take that into consideration. As a friend of mine suggested, when Phoenix died, I reacted as if he had been an adult. Now, looking back, I realize he was just another stupid kid.

I miss that stupid kid.

When I look back at that cloying, sentimental film that came to define my adolescence or that lyrical ode to a confused, narcoleptic wanderer, I miss him. I miss what he was; I miss what he did; I miss what I imagine he could have become. My Own Private Idaho was a monumental achievement, but Phoenix was still gestating. He hadn’t yet given that one great performance. He hadn’t yet scored that one great film.

I wasn’t an active fan of River Phoenix. At times, I didn’t even like him. I hated him for being perfect, then I hated him when he turned out not to be. He just couldn’t please me.

But unbeknownst to him, Phoenix and I grew up together. We had fights; we had truces. We attended dozens of sleepovers. Later, we got drunk; we got high. We had some good times. We never met, but I reacted to his death as personally and as viscerally as if we had. River Phoenix played a more significant role in some of my most precious childhood memories than some of the people that I actually knew, and when he died, that pretty kid with the perfect hair and the pointy, upturned nose who used to get on my nerves took a piece of my childhood with him.

Kellie M. Walsh is a freelance writer, copyeditor, and proofreader, who lives with her husband in New Jersey. In her spare time, she is working on a book about a flag that stalked a drummer around the world.

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