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THE LOST BOY - BY RYAN GILBEY
THE GUARDIAN - 24 OCTOBER 2003
Ten years ago, River Phoenix collapsed and died from a drug overdose. He was 23 years old, and the brightest in a generation of Hollywood actors that included Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves. But where others have been made more famous by dying young, Phoenix's star has fallen. Why? Ryan Gilbey asks the actor's friends and colleagues where, if he had lived, he would be today.
If it had happened yesterday, you would have read about it on the internet, or received the bad tidings in an email or a text message. But when River Phoenix died from a drugs overdose outside Johnny Depp's Los Angeles club, the Viper Room, mobile phones were still the size of house bricks. In this country, the first announcements of his death appeared in the low-tech, large-print format of Teletext. Its gaily coloured lettering made no concessions to tragedy.
River Phoenix was famous, if not quite a household name. He hadn't yet made an unequivocally great film by the time he died on October 31 1993, but he had given enough accomplished performances to be recognised as an actor with the brightest of futures. He had been rewarded for some of his work - he landed an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a boy on the lam with fugitive parents in Running on Empty, and had been named best actor at the 1992 Venice film festival for playing an itinerant rent-boy in My Own Private Idaho.
Now it is rare to see his name in print unless it is being invoked as shorthand for corrupted innocence or curdled dreams. It has been a long time since his acting style, characterised by an intensity laced with tomfoolery but never entirely dispelled by it, was celebrated or even mentioned by critics. His kid brother Joaquin Phoenix, who excels in the kind of morally ambivalent roles that River had only begun to sample, is reluctant to discuss him: when I attempted to broach the subject once by pointing out that he and his brother had both played son to Richard Harris (River in Silent Tongue, Joaquin in Gladiator), the room instantly acquired an arctic chill.
But then, the media had baldly exploited Joaquin. He had accompanied his brother to the Viper Room at 10pm on October 30, along with River's girlfriend, the actress Samantha Mathis, and friends from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Butthole Surfers. An hour into the evening, River was convulsing on the sidewalk after ingesting a heroin-and-cocaine "speedball"; it later came to light that he had been scoring drugs after finishing his day's work shooting interiors for the film Dark Blood. If you had switched on any US TV or radio station a few hours after his death, you would have heard Joaquin's anguished 911 call being played repeatedly. Small wonder that he now freezes out anyone who trespasses on his memories with a Dictaphone.
The lurid circumstances of Phoenix's death boosted him into the headlines, but they also consumed his achievements. He is the forgotten man of late-20th-century film acting. Do the young fans of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal even know that there was an actor in the recent past who would make their idols look like bantamweights? At the time of his death, it seemed indisputable that his reputation would weather the scandal. Gus van Sant's film Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and REM's album Monster, both carried the dedication "For River", while Michael Stipe declared Phoenix's death to be "the most shattering experience of my life". Red Hot Chili Peppers dedicated a song from their album One Hot Minute to him. Natalie Merchant, Rufus Wainwright and Belinda Carlisle paid their respects in musical form.
Those heartfelt tributes were quickly replaced by hip, detached ones that had about them a vaguely taboo tang. Larry Clark incorporated images of the pubescent Phoenix into his photographic collection The Perfect Childhood. Phoenix's ghost appeared in the VIP queue at the opening of a new club in Bret Easton Ellis's novel Glamorama. Later, the ghost turned up again in Introducing Horror Hospital, a graphic novel by the cult writer Dennis Cooper and the illustrator Keith Mayerson. In that book, Phoenix drops in to pacify the bewildered hero. "If it's any consolation, death's not so bad," he says. "It's kind of laid back." The attention of Ellis and Cooper also helped ratify Phoenix's status as a gay icon, a position to which he had graduated after his tender scenes with Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho.
These days, even those references have subsided; his celebrity has receded into the margins. Where Kurt Cobain became iconic in death, to the extent that his incoherent diaries could be flogged in legitimate bookshops, Phoenix's star dimmed. The sense that the world had been duped by his puritanical image took precedence over his life and work, and the contradictions that they revealed. He had been compared frequently, even before his death, to James Dean, but Phoenix's persona was nowhere near as clearly defined. He hadn't completed an iconic film, a Rebel Without a Cause or a Giant, to sharpen his memory in the popular imagination; only Stand By Me, made when Phoenix was still a child swaddled in puppy fat, came close.
Phoenix was 23 when he died. He had been downhearted when his Sneakers co-star Robert Redford had picked Brad Pitt over him for the lead role in A River Runs Through It, but he had more adventurous projects on the boil. When he died, he had yet to complete filming Dark Blood, a desert-bound horror story in which he played a sinister outsider who upsets the already precarious marriage between a former model (Judy Davis) and her husband (Jonathan Pryce). The shoot was reportedly an unhappy one, with Phoenix intercepting tensions between Davis and the director, George Sluizer. However, the producer, Stephen Woolley, recalls vividly the actor's excitement about making the picture.
"He was very animated and off-the-wall," he says. "And prone to do almost anything - he was skittish like a hyperactive kid. One minute he would be sitting there quietly, the next he'd be jumping up and doing slightly embarrassing things. I remember him kissing Judy Davis's feet at one point." Another of Dark Blood's producers, JoAnne Sellar, was on set throughout the shoot. "River was a very soulful human being," she says. "He always cared about everything around him and was extremely considerate of others - very cautious and concerned about everybody's safety. He seemed much wiser than his 23 years."
Woolley was also producing the actor's next film, Interview with the Vampire, for which he had signed to play the reporter Daniel Malloy, a part that went to Christian Slater after Phoenix's death. It was likely that Phoenix would have followed that by appearing as Susan Sarandon's son in Safe Passage; Sean Astin, later to star in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, eventually took the role. Phoenix had also expressed an interest in playing Rimbaud in Total Eclipse, which was eventually filmed with Leonardo DiCaprio as the scabrous poet. It was possible, too, that Gus van Sant would pick him to play Andy Warhol in a biopic that he had been planning for some years. "It dawned on me that you look a lot like Warhol did when he was, say, 18 to 25," the director told him in 1992. "It would be a stretch, but you could pull off playing the young Warhol."
It was not out of the question that Phoenix would eventually star in John Boorman's film Broken Dream, which Boorman had co-written with Neil Jordan, and to which Phoenix had committed before the movie's funding collapsed. He had been cast as Ben, a young illusionist in a dilapidated futuristic world, who is taught by his father to make objects, and eventually people, disappear.
"I met with River a few times," remembers Boorman. "He was streetwise, but at the same time there was this fragility about him. You felt that somehow he had to be protected. Many people felt that he was vulnerable and open." Woolley expresses the same sentiment. "He had total vulnerability. It was like being in the presence of a kid. When he did silly things you wanted to say, 'Don't do that,' or 'Be careful.'"
Peter Newman produced Dogfight, in which Phoenix starred shortly after receiving his Oscar nomination, and recalls a figure of some modesty. "He was very gentle and polite, and had this real sweetness to him. He brought Joaquin, who was about 14, with him on set the whole time. Unusually for a young, famous actor, there was no arrogance about River - no fancy clothes, no fancy car. He was always concerned about whether people would like his performance. We'd come out of screening the dailies and he would say to me, 'Am I all right?'"
He had been wise in his career choices, guided by his sprawling but close-knit family and his pugnacious agent, Iris Burton. It is likely that Phoenix's natural charisma would have shone through without industry clout - Sidney Lumet, who directed Running on Empty, decided that the actor "couldn't be ordinary if he tried". But with Burton behind him, Phoenix had all the bases covered.
People who knew about movies knew he was special from his daring work with independent directors such as Van Sant and Nancy Savoca. People who didn't care either way recognised his face from well-placed mainstream pictures such as Sneakers and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He had made it on to the bedroom walls and into the hearts of a younger audience, posing and pouting in teenybopper rags, and this initial heart-throb status seemed to vex him as much as the various environmental evils against which he railed tirelessly. It would be easy now to view Phoenix's work through the distorting gauze of his ugly death, but there had been conflict in the actor's persona from the start.
"He was very attractive," recalls Newman, "but he didn't try to enhance his looks. He was always sort of raggedy, his hair dirty and hanging down." Dirk Drake, his former tutor and friend, has said: "River hated being on the cover of [teen magazine] Tiger Beat. Pulling a fancy T-shirt down and exposing a nipple - he was totally ashamed of doing it but he understood that was part of it all: the mission, the purpose, the job. But he found it ridiculous at the same time."
Woolley sensed the same disparity. "River was gifted with phenomenal looks," he says, "and every casting director and producer had him in mind for any film where the pretty boy image was the main ingredient. But he was determined to go against that grain. His philosophy was movie actor, not movie star."
Looking at Phoenix's choice of roles now it is clear that there had been rumbles of unrest for some time. In Stand By Me, Phoenix played a bruiser who knew he deserved better than a dead-end future, but was smart enough to know he wouldn't get it. His final scene, in which he dissolves into air as the narrator reveals that his character later died in early adulthood, was poignant long before life imitated art.
There were other signs that Phoenix would not be nourished by conventional Brat Pack material. He played the title role in Jimmy Reardon, which was marketed like a John Hughes film but featured a scene in which Reardon acts out a rape fantasy for his girlfriend. Ironically for an actor so snug with his own kin, he experimented repeatedly with fractured family structures on screen - as a son paying for his parents' sins in The Mosquito Coast, Little Nikita and Running on Empty, or discovering that his brother was also his father in My Own Private Idaho.
It is an ironic touch typical of Phoenix's thwarted career that his finest performance was scarcely noticed. In Nancy Savoca's little-seen Dogfight, which went straight to video in Britain (and might as well have done in the US for all the attention it received), Phoenix flouted audience sympathies for the first time by playing a callous marine who competes with his pals to woo the ugliest woman in town. The film would be impressive even if it hadn't chafed against Phoenix's persona, but there is a special thrill in seeing him so stretched, so palpably edgy. It remains the most explicit and encouraging sign we have of what the future could have held.
"I'd been trying to get Dogfight made for five years," says Newman, "and it came together when Warners fell in love with the script just after River had got his Oscar nomination. They said, 'We'll do anything with River.' I was surprised he wanted to do the film, and I think it was tough initially for him to find the character because it was so different from who he was. We had the drill instructor who had trained the actors on Platoon; he was putting the cast through a week-long boot camp, which River found very difficult. I remember when he showed up on set after they had all got their Marine haircuts, and he had this very cold look in his eyes - he'd been through boot camp, and all of a sudden a bit of that was ingrained in him."
Newman believes that Phoenix was destined for darker territory. "I think he would have done edgier things, probably disappearing into the films he did rather than being the star. I could even have seen him doing some interesting supporting roles." JoAnne Sellar adds: "Given the kind of material River was drawn towards, I think that had he lived, he would have given the past 10 years over to a mix of independent and mainstream movies."
His friend Keanu Reeves made a successful leap into the mainstream with the Matrix trilogy, neglecting in the process the independent-minded films that launched him. But it is possible to imagine Phoenix clinging on to his idiosyncrasies even in a big-budget context, like his peers Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt.
"I suspect he would have gone on to play harder, more interesting characters," argues Woolley. "Robert Downey Jr is exactly the kind of guy that River would have become had he lived. There's a comparison there in the conflict between what pays the rent and what challenges you creatively, and also, I think, in the way they were both hung out to dry. I was quite surprised at the end when it became apparent that there was no one looking after River. Nobody could - he was a grown man, of course, but in another sense he was still a kid. The way he died was by visiting little sections of friends, none of whom were aware of the other, getting a little bit of this, a little bit of that. He was very cleverly playing everyone. He just had no one in his life who was strong enough to say, 'What are you doing now, where are you going?'"
Boorman was one of a small number of friends and colleagues invited to attend a memorial for the actor held at Paramount. "His mother said that she'd been in labour with River for 48 hours," he recalls, "and that she was convinced he hadn't really wanted to be born. She thought he had struck some sort of deal so that he wouldn't have to stay very long on this earth. People were invited to say things, and I had that feeling that people get at Quaker meetings, where they suddenly start to shake. So I got up and said, 'Why did he have to take all those drugs?'
"People shouted and screamed at me - they were horrified I could ask that question. But it seemed to me that it had been hanging in the air. His girlfriend stood up and said that she thought he could feel people's pain: the pain of the world. And he had to find a way to dull that pain. He simply couldn't deal with it."
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