River, with love and anger

His friends and family have tried to turn River Phoenix into a martyr for a fallen earth. But as they struggle to craft meaning out of a squalid drug death, they’ve begun to wonder how well they ever really knew him.

Heart Phoenix sat on the edge of the stage and beckoned everyone near. The 50 people in Paramount Studios’ screening room gathered around her. Heart has a way of soothing fears. The mourners needed her now; her son River’s memorial service had been wrenching. 

They had recalled Phoenix’s mercurial abandon, his peculiar combination of heart-stopping innocence and ageless wisdom, his “vegan” beliefs, and, always, the eggshell beauty of his acting. Seeking consolation, they had groped to trace in Phoenix’s life a narrative arc, a theme.

But River Phoenix had a stubborn case of the vagabond disease that afflicts celebrities. He affected others deeply yet narrowly before moving on. Iris Burton (his agent) was not the only one present who had privately wondered, in the three weeks since Phoenix’s death, whether she had really known him, whether he hadn’t been acting a part around her.

Heart spoke, holding Rob Reiner’s hand for support. Her hopes for her son had always been on a wholly different plane than most stage mothers’. “We believed we could use the mass media to help change the world,” as Heart puts it now, “and that River would be our missionary.” 

Heart then invited others to speak. After a few further testimonials, director John Boorman suddenly blurted out from the corner of the stage: “Is there anybody here who can tell us why River took all those drugs?”

The question quivered in the air. River’s young sisters, Liberty and Summer, ran out, and Heart looked astonished.

And then Samantha Mathis, Phoenix’s girlfriend and the co-star of his last completed movie, The Thing Called Love, spoke from the front row for the first time. “River was a sensitive,” she said with great tenderness, using the word as a noun. “He had so much compassion for everyone and everything that he had a weight on his heart.” She paused and added that Phoenix “was obsessive. When he wanted to eat artichokes he would eat ten at a time. He did everything to that degree.”

Mathis’s was a brave statement, as she had been heartsick with Phoenix for breaking his vows to stay drug-free. But her gloss on Phoenix’s life joined a long line of unifying theories. For instance, that “this innocent little bird got his wings clipped in the most evil city in the world” (Iris Burton); that he was a moody, hard-partying hypocrite who got what he deserved (the National Enquirer, et al.); that an artist had taken the risks of Method acting too far (Peter Bogdanovich).

Each theory is alluring but finally unsatisfying because it seems not quite the answer. “John Boorman’s question was a good one,” Heart Phoenix says now. “It’s what everyone was thinking. Why, when you’re living this dream. When you can have any car, any house, any girl, you’re so famous–why?'”

But River Phoenix’s story is not just a passion play; it is also a drama of fierce internal conflict. It was Phoenix’s loneliness and anguish, after all, that backlit the sadness in the characters he played. And it was that bewitching confusion that later led him to drugs.

“He’s already being made into a martyr,” says Phoenix’s first and longtime love, actress Martha Plimpton. “He wasn’t. He was just a boy, a very good-hearted boy who was very f**ed-up and had no idea how to implement his good intentions. I don’t want to be comforted by his death. I think it’s right that I’m angry about it, angry at the people who helped him stay sick, and angry at River.”

“The main thing in film acting is something going on in the face,” said Gus Van Sant, “and with the really good ones, it’s pain.” Van Sant was in the basement staring at his darkroom wall. On it hung five photos of River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho. “You don’t read it as pain but when you really look, it’s pain.”

Phoenix was never photographed grinning and very rarely smiling–he mistrusted cameras. And yet it was the camera that fixed Phoenix’s image as a disillusioned innocent.

Of his roles, the character Phoenix drew in Idaho resembled him most, “kind of isolated, a nerd, a misfit,” as Phoenix’s friend Bobby Bukowski puts it. 

A self-described chameleon, Phoenix almost recklessly “invited the demons of the role into himself.” Bukowski was the cinematographer on Dogfight, in which Phoenix played a marine. “After Dogfight I remember thinking he was being a real jarhead asshole–it took a month for him to become sweet again,” Bukowski says, “and the street-urchin character in Idaho stayed with him and played into the whole drug thing.”

“His eyes made him the focus of energy in every scene, the centrifugal force so strong you didn’t even try to duel him for control,” says Dermot Mulroney, who later co-starred with Phoenix in Silent Tongue and The Thing Called Love. “The off-center eye [Phoenix’s lazy right eye] read as madness, and the other read pure sanity. In a close-up, from one side he was the guy next door, and from the other he was absolutely insane.”

Phoenix’s friends often ended up being vegan like him. “He’d say about meat, ‘That’s not good for you, man, that’ll kill you,'” says Peter Bogdanovich. “And he’d be smoking a cigarette, and he’d look at it and say, ‘I know, man, I know.'” Phoenix scorched through people’s barriers very fast. He had a gift for making everyone feel like his closest friend.

He was both reflectively and spontaneously generous, serving himself last at dinners; asking that his Silent Tongue co-star, Sheila Tousey, be given his trailer because she spent so much more time in makeup; jumping to his feet when Kevin Kline beat him for best supporting actor at the 1989 Academy Awards. “I had to stop River from running to hug Kevin,” his mother says. “It never crossed his mind that he hadn’t won.”

Phoenix’s tutor, Dirk Drake, recalls some white-power skinheads taunting Phoenix at a party in 1988. “He smiled with an unbelievable innocence,” Drake says, “and said, ‘If you really want to kick my ass, go ahead, just explain to me why you’re doing it.’ The skinheads were dumbfounded. One guy stayed to say, ‘Ah, you wouldn’t be worth it.’ And River said, ‘We’re all worth it, man, we’re all worth millions of planets and stars and galaxies and universes.'”

Phoenix was always creating families as he traveled, making new “brothers” and “sisters” and, particularly, “fathers,” like Harrison Ford on The Mosquito Coast. Kevan Michaels, who was “dad to buddy son” with the sixteen-year-old Phoenix on the set of A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon remembers calling him a few years later on New Year’s Day. “I can’t understand why we’re talking right now,” Phoenix said, almost resentfully. “When you make a film you’re a family, but when the film is over so is the family.”

Says Martha Plimpton, who stayed with the Phoenixes after she and River met while filming The Mosquito Coast in Belize, “I love River’s family; they brought him up to believe he was a pure soul who had a message to deliver to the world.

“But in moving around all the time, changing schools, keeping to themselves, and distrusting America,” Plimpton continues, “they created this utopian bubble so that River was never socialized–he was never prepared for dealing with crowds and with Hollywood, for the world in which he’d have to deliver that message. And furthermore, when you’re fifteen, to have to think of yourself as a prophet is unfair.”

“Our kids were so comfortable with everyone, so mature,” Heart Phoenix responds. “But as River grew,” she admits, “he did become more and more uncomfortable being the poster boy for all good things. He often said he wished he could just be anonymous. But he never was. When he wasn’t a movie star, he was a missionary. There’s a beauty in that–the man with the cause, the leader–but there’s also a deep, loneliness.”

“His parents saw him as their savior,” Plimpton says, “and treated him as the father.” Eventually, because the family was so generous about sheltering lost souls, up to a dozen people lived near or on the Micanopy property, in a motor home, two travel trailers, and in Phoenix’s apartment above his recording studio; River supported them all.

Known to River’s self-sufficient friends as “the Klingons” or “the tofu mafia,” they worked as gardeners, security guards, secretaries, or simply grocery-unloaders. Many of them were gentle spirits whom Phoenix loved being around. “But in River’s mind he was their father,” Bobby Bukowski says. “And he had some anger about that.”

Still, by 1991 the evidence that Phoenix had his own problem was there to read. “You’d have to be really dumb or naive not to know he was high when he was,” says Bobby Bukowski. “He was so clearly high he was like an alien.”

“He was very disappointed that his music never hit,” says Dirk Drake. “In the late ’80s he had always felt it was just a matter of days before the world would be healing itself with his beautiful music, before he was touching everyone the way the Beatles did.”

In two separate memorial services, both held outside on still days, when everyone joined hands to think of Phoenix, the wind suddenly whipped up. “I am still connected to his energy,” Heart Phoenix says. “When the wind blows I see River, when the sun shines I see River, when I look in someone’s eyes and make a connection I see River. To have death transformed into another way to look at life is his huge gift.”

But for others the question of how to remember lingers. In London, Dermot Mulroney ran in to one of River’s drug friends, a screenwriter, and slammed him against a wall. “This is how I feel about River’s death,” Mulroney said. “How do you feel?” The friend said he was clean–now.

Nor would he have wanted the other extreme. When 250 people gathered for the family’s memorial service under a huge live oak tree at the base of the Phoenix property, the tenor of many of the remarks from the Klingons was, as Suzanne Solgot puts it, “River’s in heaven, blah blah blah, it was his time, blah blah blah.” “You would have thought he was ninety and had died in his sleep,” says Martha Plimpton. “The people who were saying this felt tremendous guilt that they had contributed to his death.”

After hearing yet another speaker say, “River needed to go, and he’s free now,” Bradley Gregg, who’d played Phoenix’s elder brother in Stand by Me and who became like an actual brother to him, leaped to his feet and shouted, “River didn’t have to die to be free!” Not everyone heard, so he shouted again, “River didn’t have to die to be free!”

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Esquire Mar.1994.

March 24, 1994 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links