My Love-Hate Relationship with River Phoenix

Kellie M. Walsh

From the moment that he appeared on screen in the film -- with a cigarette balanced between his fingers and the close-cropped haircut of a little boy -- media outlets had him pegged as the James Dean of the '80s.

River Phoenix was an actor.

People don’t talk much about him anymore. His name mostly pops up when someone young and beautiful dies. These days, he’s mostly famous for dying.

River Phoenix, however, was an actor, too. In 1993, he died, but just seven years earlier, at the age of 16, he grabbed the attention of the world.

It was the summer of 1986. The Statue of Liberty had just reopened after two years and billions of pennies’ worth of renovations. Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president. The Monkees were back; The Police had just gone; “How Will I Know,” “Sledgehammer,” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” co-existed on pop radio. The Iran-Contra affair was in full swing, even though none of us knew it yet.

I was 11 years old then.

A favorite pastime of my demographic was leafing through candy-colored teen magazines, magazines with such descriptive names as Tiger Beat, Bop and (my personal favorite) Wow. It was the age of the John Hughes movie and the Brat Pack, and column inches were monopolized by such faces as Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, and Andrew McCarthy.

But as cool as such actors were -- with their fluffy hair, shoulder pads, and designer drug addictions -- they were difficult for a kid my age to identify with. The Brat Packers were born in the '50s and '60s; the characters they played were in their late teens and 20s. I understood their ageless plights of confusion, ugliness, and unpopularity, but I had never been to high school or kit-bashed a prom dress or lived as a post-Georgetown yuppie. I may have been gaining on 18-year-old Molly Ringwald for cup-size dominance, but she had me beat on life experience.

Then in August 1986, a Rob Reiner film was released. Titled Stand by Me, the film followed four 12-year-old boys in the '50s as they journeyed on foot to find the dead body of a missing boy. The film was nostalgic. Sentimental. Melodramatic. Cloying.

I fell in love instantly.

Soon the fresh, young faces of the stars of the film began to appear on TV and magazine covers. Ranging in age from 12 to just barely 16, the Stand by Me actors were more accessible, their faces and experiences -- both on-screen and off -- more familiar than their fluffy-haired predecessors. The oldest of the four stars even had a pointy, upturned nose that sometimes reminded me of my own: a 16-year-old named River Phoenix.

From the moment that he appeared on screen in the film -- with a cigarette balanced between his fingers and the close-cropped haircut of a little boy -- media outlets had him pegged as the James Dean of the '80s. He was handsome and marketable, unthreatening with a soft face, blond hair, and piercing, clear blue eyes, and he already had more acting chops than the Brat Pack stars 15 years his senior. He was a shiny blue marble in a sack of stones, and everyone loved him.

He got on my nerves.

He was too pretty. Too popular. His hair, way too perfect. Too many people loved him, and they loved him far too much.

And I never did like my pointy, upturned nose.

A number of journalists were so beguiled by his polite manners and delicate looks that their articles read like diary entries. The oldest son of a brood born to itinerant missionaries, Phoenix was introduced as that sensitive hippie kid with that poetic hippie name from that earthy hippie-tribe family. He was born to a round of applause in Oregon; he doled out blessings and flowers to passers-by as a child in South America. He was an environmentalist before recycling was commonplace, a vegan before vegetarianism was de rigueur. When speaking about himself, he would cover his face and avert his eyes, but when speaking about his beliefs, his voice lost its quaver, his body its slouch. Long before anyone had ever heard of Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie, or Moby, Phoenix was making headlines as the refreshing new talent who was pro-earth, pro-animal, pro-human, pro-rainforest, pro-good stuff, anti-bad stuff, and pro-peace, love, and understanding.

I didn’t buy it. No one could be that perfect. No one could be that virtuous. No one could be that wholesome, especially not at 16. It didn’t matter that I agreed with much of what he said. You just couldn’t open a magazine without being confronted by this towheaded knight wielding tofu and a boyish charm. Even his lazy eye was somehow packaged as sexy. The media had him just one step away from chopping down cherry trees with a banjo on his knee, and the more pages they devoted to Phoenix, the fewer available for the gawky, twisted-mouthed boys that set my teenage heart a-flutter. I hated him for it.

But as the Washington Post pointed out, Phoenix was the “center of gravity” of that Reiner film that I held so dear. Without him, Stand by Me would have collapsed under its own weight. Phoenix had a quality that drew your eye, and although he couldn’t play happiness or laugh convincingly, he had a raw naturalism well versed to portraying pain. In the campfire scene in which his tough-boy character finally breaks, you almost see him collapse beneath the pressure of his reputation. How many times as a child did I express that desperation for anonymity behind closed doors?

How many times as an adult?

John Willis listed Phoenix in Screen World as one of the twelve Promising New Actors of 1986, and rightly so: he was good. I knew he was good. I knew he was smart. I knew he was interesting and attractive and positive. I knew that I agreed with him. I just didn’t like him.

By the summer of 1988, I had moved on from candy-colored teen rags to black and moody metal magazines, but when I saw commercials for A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, I felt vindicated; there, in all its mercenary, teen-fluff glory, was proof that this indie-minded, counter-cultural, anti-Hollywood kid was nothing more than a typical Hollywood golden boy, just another privileged white kid. Never mind that I myself was a privileged white kid. River Phoenix was a scam; Jimmy Reardon proved it.

I didn’t know at the time that Jimmy Reardon embarrassed Phoenix. I didn’t know that his income from the film gave the Phoenix family its first real dose of financial security in probably all of River Phoenix’s life. I didn’t know that he was the main -- if not sole -- breadwinner of his family of seven or that he had grown up literally singing for his supper, busking for change with a guitar and a smile on the streets of Caracas at the age of five so his family could eat.

I didn’t know that, inside many of those articles that I long ago had refused to read, Phoenix expressed disgruntlement at the way in which he was portrayed in the media. All I knew was what I had gleaned from headlines and pull-out quotes. According to the image I had in my head, Phoenix was a hypocrite.

By the early '90s, I had moved on. I occasionally caught bits and pieces of The Mosquito Coast and Running on Empty on cable. Phoenix had grown older, more solid, less shrill. He still had perfect hair. I hadn’t seen or bought a teen magazine in years.

When Phoenix appeared on the red carpet at the Oscars in 1990, I yelped. I didn’t remember how much he had annoyed me; instead I felt an odd collegial pride, as if an old schoolmate had just walked past the camera. He touched his face and tapped his fingers watching his Running on Empty clip, then hooted and punched the air when he lost the Best Actor award to his I Love You to Death co-star Kevin Kline. Phoenix’s mother later said that she had to stop him from jumping out of his seat and running after Kline to hug him.

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