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HOW RIVER PHOENIX'S COMING OF AGE ANTICIPATED MY OWN - BY REBECCA BENGAL
VOGUE - 23 AUGUST 2015
He was born, hard to believe, 45 years ago today, in Madras, Oregon, which later became a setting for the dreamy, disoriented roadside flashbacks in My Own Private Idaho. He was given the name River Jude; River for Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Jude for “Hey Jude.” His last name then was Bottom. So, yes . . . River Bottom. His siblings were Rain, Liberty, Summer, and Joaquin. His parents, fruit pickers and missionaries, took the family to Venezuela where they sang on the street for money; only after splitting from the Children of God movement and stowing away on a cargo ship to Florida did they change their surname to Phoenix, after the Ancient Egyptian symbol of rebirth. Later, in Los Angeles, in a somewhat more settled-down life but still singing on street corners, young River was discovered, cast in commercials and films, eventually Stand By Me, where his performance as Chris Chambers first marked him as one of the most talented and promising actors in Hollywood—a prophecy he would live long enough to only partially fulfill.
Most of the early parts of this biography were chronicled in the terrible magazines I obsessively collected about River Phoenix, along with the standard height and weight and astrological and favorite color info. I didn’t care about that stuff. I was going to cut out all that and pin up his pictures all over my wall. I knew it was beneath River anyway: He said elsewhere that he lied to reporters half the time, and that made me like him even more. The favorite idiotic headline back then was usually some variation on “River Is Deep,” which seemed to me to hit even below the dubious abilities of whoever was running the show at Teen Beat. But River was deep. It was because of him, for instance, that I became a strict vegetarian in my small North Carolina town where no one had heard of tofu; for nearly a decade after he died I still didn’t eat meat. River was older; River was wiser. River was hot.
He was for me, simultaneously idol and crush, cast in the dual role of being both who I wanted to be like and who I wanted to make out with. I didn’t relate to the vapid girlfriend characters that proliferated on screen—the release of The Diary of a Teenage Girl this summer makes all the more apparent the lack of any girl characters at the time who were not only cool and worth aspiring to emulate, but remotely relevant to anything resembling real life. Meanwhile the boys were permitted to be dirty and funny and free.
River had some years on me, sure, but he was just the right age to look up to: older brother, older crush, the first person I saw every morning on the wall of my bedroom. His movies were about my own struggles—growing up, first loves and sex and first heartbreak, rebelling against your family, against the world; being drawn to darkness and escapism, but still, deep down, trying to be a good person. His coming of age anticipated mine.
“Kids lose everything unless there’s someone there to look out for them. And if your parents are too fucked up to do it, then maybe I should,” said River-as–Chris Chambers, tough and baby-Brando cool with his pack of smokes rolled up in his T-shirt, telling off his hoodlum brother Eyeball, his teachers, his parents, running away into the woods and perilously over a train trestle with his three best friends to find “the body of a dead kid.” I spent my own summers building forts in the woods, sneaking through bridge tunnels, desperate for that kind of adventure, as morbid as their mission was. He was sensitive and sage but he also had a pretty stupid, sarcastic, perverse sense of humor that struck a nerve with me, as vital a part of growing up as losing your virginity, gaining a sense of your own mortality, figuring out who your true friends were, and learning how to tell your authorities, now and then, to fuck off. Put me in front of a screening of Stand By Me and I can still recite every line.
In the canon of River Phoenix, the best of which also includes My Own Private Idaho, The Mosquito Coast, Running on Empty, and the underrated Dogfight and The Thing Called Love, there is a lot of learning to tell authorities, parents and otherwise, to fuck off, but that’s mediated within a larger, moral context: How do you simultaneously rebel against your parents while still loving them? How do you stand up to the rest of the world and its deep flaws, while also finding your own way in it?
Here’s River as Charlie Fox, son of eccentric inventor Allie (Harrison Ford), who uproots his family to a Central American jungle in The Mosquito Coast, Peter Weir’s film based on the Paul Theroux novel: “Once I had believed in Father and the world had seemed small and old. Now he was gone and I wasn’t afraid to love him anymore. And the world seemed limitless.”
Running on Empty, directed by Sidney Lumet, for which Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, is loosely inspired by the Weather Underground—his character’s parents, played by Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch, jumpsuit-clad seventies radicals, are in constant hiding from the government for an activist bombing they took part in years prior, and as a result the entire family abides by a code of constant name changes, hair dyes, an implicit agreement to never become close enough to anyone to reveal their true selves and thus incriminate the family. Their tiny homespun parties, dancing around the house to “Fire and Rain” are anonymous, bittersweet ones—“On our birthday, we’re all called Sam,” Danny tells his girlfriend Lorna, played by River’s real-life girlfriend Martha Plimpton. It’s the ultimate overprotectiveness, loving but suffocating. Wanting to go to college is as shattering a rebellion as falling in love, and in the film River does both.
Even My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s brilliant 1991 film costarring Keanu Reeves, is essentially a film about family, as much as it is a gay film, as much as it is a drug film, as much as it is a road movie—“a crazy quilt of family romances” as critic Amy Taubin describes it. River’s narcoleptic street hustler character searches for reconciliation and connection, with such beautifully wrought, homesick desperation that he rebels even against himself. “He’s put his lips as close to any street-gutter ooze as you can,” Phoenix told The New York Times. “His cut-open flesh is as close to a stone brick wall as anything. He’s part of the street. He’s like a rat.” It’s the darkest turn in Phoenix’s career; looking back now, it’s hard not to see it foreshadowing the end of his own life, two years later, and fates that very nearly befell certain people in mine. But by then, he’d gone somewhere beyond me.
“Everyone should survive their first rebellions. Dying defeats the whole point,” wrote Miranda July of River earlier this year in Vogue. If I’d relied upon River during my own coming of age, the sense of loss I felt at outliving his was a distant survivor’s guilt, coupled with a loss that a larger world has publicly acknowledged, in angry and heartfelt and honorific ways, in song lyrics and apologies and speculation.
I don’t want to dwell on the details of River Phoenix’s death—today would have been his birthday after all, and it’s pointless, I think, to endlessly pontificate on what his life would have been had he lived beyond his earliest years to see it. If he were here, I could only thank him for helping me make it through mine.
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