My Love-Hate Relationship with River Phoenix

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.

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.