Many believed River Phoenix was a Hollywood rarity: a gifted young actor who shunned the spotlight as well as the temptations that destroyed so many before him. Then, on a fateful Halloween morning, Phoenix’s life shuddered to a pitiful end. Martha Frankel looks back on the first fallen idol of his generation.
“It’s really designed, I think, to strip you and blend you. It’s like feeling like the invisible man. You just stand there, and you start disintegrating, and you can’t see yourself, and you feel like you’re being absorbed into this big blob of glitter. I just can’t hang.”
– River Phoenix on Hollywood, October 1991
“Honestly, I can’t stand parties and I hate clubs and I hate bars. You won’t catch me there….”
– River Phoenix, in an August 1993 press conference for The Thing Called Love
In the two days following River Phoenix’s death, phone lines were buzzing. I spoke with dozens of people in the industry, and even the most jaded editors, publicists, agents, and actors were openly distressed about the death of this incredibly talented young man, dubbing him the best of his generation, scoffing at the rumors that drugs played a role in his demise.
“Absolutely not. It’s just inconceivable,” more than a few said. “He was the best actor we’ve had for a long, long time,” said one agent. “There was no one out there that could convey the kind of truth, alienation, and hope that River could. When he was on the screen, you couldn’t see anyone else. And you never felt that you were watching a kid. He was more than that, much, much more.” Four days later, when I called back some of these same people to ask if they would speak on the record, not one of them agreed.
Hollywood, a town that notoriously eats its young, was furiously backpedaling, trying to distance itself as far as possible from the death of Phoenix. “I’ll tell my client you want to talk to her,” said a publicist I’ve known for years, someone who frequently encourages her clients to speak candidly with me. “But I’ll tell you right now,” she continued, “she doesn’t need this. She’s getting good work, and the last thing she needs is to be connected, in any way, with drugs.” An agent echoed the industry’s hasty retreat.
“We thought he was going to be his generation’s Al Pacino,” he told me, “but in the end he turned out to be its John Belushi. What, it’s not enough to make half a million bucks a picture, to be young and beautiful, to be envied and loved? What do they need the drugs for? The whole thing just makes me sick.” Phoenix should have heeded his own advice and stayed far, far from Hollywood. Because the minute they couldn’t make any money off him, the minute he made his own failings public- the minute he died- he was of no use.
It was as if he was absorbed into that big blob of glitter. And, in death, he was fast becoming the invisible man. The rumor mill is having a field day over what happened the night River Phoenix died. The only thing everyone agrees on is that it wasn’t a very pretty picture. Whatever drugs Phoenix did that Halloween night before he arrived at Johnny Depp’s Viper Room on Sunset Strip (by all indications a combination of cocaine, heroin, and Valium), he was acting like an asshole, knocking back shots of Jagermeister, slurring his speech, talking loudly, and walking unsteadily. “The Viper Room,” says Kerin, co-editor of the notorious Los Angeles fringe magazine Ben Is Dead, “is a drug den for the stars.”
His companions, including his sister Rain, his brother Leaf, and his Thing Called Love costar Samantha Mathis, helped him outside when he complained that he was having trouble breathing and needed some air. It was there that he fell to the ground and began convulsing. Rain cradled him in her arms. Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers), who was onstage with Johnny Depp as part of the group P, realized something was wrong when he saw a bouncer bolt out the door. He rushed outside to see his friend writhing on the ground. It was Flea who told Leaf to call 911, a frenzied plea for help that included Leaf’s disclosure to the police dispatcher that his brother had taken “Valium or something.” Rain tried to revive her brother with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but he failed to respond. In the end, paramedics were unable to get Phoenix’s heart going, and he was brought to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Phoenix was pronounced dead less than an hour later, at 1:51 a.m. On November 12, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office said that Phoenix’s death was a result of “acute multiple drug intoxication” involving lethal levels of cocaine and heroin. Also present in his system were traces of Valium, marijuana, and an over-the-counter cold medicine. No needle marks were found on his body. Phoenix spent his years in Hollywood cultivating an image of ascetic wholesomeness. “I met him at a Fugazi show,” recalls Kerin. “He was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet.” When People magazine did an April 1990 story about “Hollywood’s New Squares,” he was prominently mentioned, along with Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, as one of the new breed of actors who go to the movies, shun the clubs, and are happiest at home, fixing dinner for a few friends.
“A new generation of actors believes it’s hip to be normal and a little bit square,” the article claimed. “Heavy drinking and drugs are out.” Later that year, an article in Cosmopolitan complained about how boring celebrities were getting. There was mention of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis and Lamaze classes, of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith at the gym, and of Kiefer Sutherland painting the baby’s nursery. “Causes are another effective way to be boring, particularly for the younger Hollywood set. River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton talk constantly about how they don’t eat meat, don’t wear fur, and don’t abuse their bodies. They’re so sensitive, they don’t even eat honey.”
Phoenix formed the band Aleka’s Attic with Rain, and was seen jamming at clubs around the country. We may have expected him to make a bad movie or two, maybe drive his motorcycle too fast, perhaps put out an album that sucked. What we didn’t expect was that he’d overdose on Sunset Boulevard. How could it happen that such a clean-living boy became a serious drug abuser? Those who were on the set of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho say that he dove into his drug use head-on. “Everyone was getting high,” says one young actor. “It was the nature of the film. Some of these guys had been through this before, and as soon as filming was over, they gave it up and got back to their work.
“This was the first time for River, though, and he just went wild. And he wasn’t mature enough to leave it and go back to his clean life. But you can be sure that he didn’t expect it to kill him.”
Van Sant denies any knowledge of Phoenix using drugs during filming. “I never saw any instance of that on the set. But you never know. It didn’t seem to me that there was some sort of hidden problem. River was extremely artistic, and there must be some pain in there somewhere. But I don’t think it was the wrong kind of pain.” Phoenix’s tendency, Van Sant says, to carry the weight of the world may have driven him over the edge that Halloween morning. “It probably stemmed from something that day on the film he was working on [Dark Blood]. I heard it had a torrid set, a lot of fights and disagreements. It was the weekend, and maybe he was just letting loose from all the turmoil.”
Who was River Phoenix anyway? He had, by all accounts, a strange childhood. His parents, John and Arlyn Phoenix, were ’60s dropouts who met while hitchhiking in Los Angeles. After moving around the West Coast and experimenting with psychedelics, they gave birth to River in Madras, Oregon, in 1970. His parents became missionaries for the Children of God (a group now known as the Family, which has recently been charged with engaging in sex with minors). After two years working for the cult in Venezuela, the Phoenix family wanted out, but had no money. By then Rainbow (she would later change her name to Rain), Leaf (originally named Joaquin, but he wanted a name like the rest of his family), Liberty, and Summer had been born. A priest helped the family go to Florida by freighter. There, John injured his back, and the couple didn’t know what to do about money. “We’d had a vision that our kids could captivate the world,” Arlyn told Life magazine.
So in the hippie version of stage-mothering, the brood headed to Los Angeles, the land of dreams. Soon, Phoenix was doing commercials, and then, at the age of 11, got his first role, in the TV series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. “Before I came back to America [from Venezuela in 1977],” River told the New York Times in 1991, “I thought features were Kellogg’s commercials and cartoons. Then I saw a western, and I thought that companies paid people’s families money to kill them. I just believed it.”
With the release of Explorers and Stand By Me, it seemed like Phoenix had figured it out. Whether acting was a path he chose for himself or one that was foisted on him, he was, simply, a natural. His work in 1986’s Stand By Me galvanized the film. He was only 15, but his tough Chris Chambers, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants so badly to do the right thing, showed that he was no mere teenage pinup. In 1986’s The Mosquito Coast he played the role of Harrison Ford’s son with an awe and determination that bowled over even the harshest critics. Running On Empty (1988) continued to showcase his maturing talents, recognized by an Academy Award nomination.
Awkward and shy, confident and swaggering, Phoenix could do it all, and make it look effortless in the process. Although he later claimed that he didn’t see any thread to his body of work, his films all spoke of making a normal world out of abnormal conditions. And nowhere did normal and abnormal converge as harshly as in 1991’s My Own Private Idaho. In one of the most heartbreaking pieces of work to be seen on the screen in ages, Phoenix showed how a boy/man who had been abandoned by everyone he cared about could still dream of a place where things would be, well, normal and good. He was so human, so engaging, that audiences were left speechless. We were going to watch River Phoenix grow into manhood. He wasn’t Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix. He wasn’t going to slash and burn. He wasn’t even James Dean, who may have been a rebel without a cause, but who knew instinctively that his bad-boy image was his ticket into Middle America. Phoenix could do something else; he could blend the good with the wicked, in the very same scene.
Long after the last hours of Phoenix’s life are thrashed over and taken apart, it will be his body of work- his ineffable feel for the hopes and fears of his generation- that people remember him by.