Death of an Alchemist: Gavin Edwards on River Phoenix

October 31 marks the 20-year anniversary of the death of River Phoenix outside a Sunset Strip nightclub. Only twenty-three years old, the actor had already become a figure of fascination, transfixing audiences with roles in films like Stand By Me, Running on Empty -- for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor -- and My Own Private Idaho. His personal life only added to the fascination: possessed of both great physical beauty and an intense charisma, Phoenix was an outspoken activist and an aspiring musician whose mistrust of the Hollywood fame machine only boosted his allure in an era when "indie" and "alternative" music and filmmaking were the focus of increasing attention in the early 1990s. His sudden death froze the rising star into an icon while his adult personality seemed to be still in the making.

The young actor's appeal -- which reached both critics and fans of popcorn fare like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade -- masked a childhood marked by chaos, uncertainty, and neglect. When his parents, John and Arlyn Bottom, moved the family to Venezuela as missionaries for the Children of God sect, River and his siblings sang in public to bring in money for the nearly destitute family. Returning to the U.S. after disillusionment with the Children of God (and rechristening the family Phoenix), River's parents ceded the financial responsibilities for the family to their talented eldest, a natural performer who began to land roles on television at the age of thirteen. Soon he was shouldering the burdens of negotiating life in the entertainment business while providing for his entire family as well.

In Last Night at the Viper Room, longtime Rolling Stone journalist and author Gavin Edwards chronicles the young actor's passage from child actor to a film star who seemed to represent many of his generation's most fragile hopes, and unveils the power his talent and personality had over both his peers and audiences. And he revisits the moment when a lethal combination of drugs cut short a career's brilliant promise. We spoke with the author via email about River Phoenix's life, and why his death still resonates, ten years later. --Bill Tipper


The Barnes & Noble Review: River Phoenix appeared in just over a dozen films, made over less than a decade before he died in 1993 -- what is it that still fascinates us about him?

Gavin Edwards: If you grew up with Phoenix in the '80s and '90s, then he represented an alternative version of Hollywood pinup stardom: a teen idol who was more interested in saving the planet than in getting a fancy car. A committed vegan at a time when most Americans didn't even know what the word meant. Somebody who became an icon of queer liberation just by seeming comfortable playing a character who had sex with men.

Now that it's been twenty years since his death, the fascination is more abstract. A clutch of compelling performances live on via Netflix -- My Own Private Idaho, Dogfight, Stand By Me, Running on Empty -- but in 2013, River Phoenix represents lost possibilities and secret influences: a lodestar of a beautiful actor making eccentric choices. We don't know what movies he would have starred in that never got made, but we can imagine the best parts of the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp.

BNR: Do you think River Phoenix have wound up such an arresting figure -- a sort of generational culture hero -- if he'd lived to have a career into his maturity?

GE: For many celebrities, an early death is the best possible career move. It's hard to imagine how anything James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, or Tupac would have done in reality could live up to the idealized visions of their fans. We've seen in recent years how death has washed away many people's reservations about Michael Jackson, restoring the glow of how fans loved him when he was in his prime. In the case of River Phoenix, however, death (aside from being a great personal misfortune) has not helped his reputation. Partially that's because of the uneven nature of his filmography; for every My Own Private Idaho, there's a Silent Tongue, for every Stand By Me, there's a Little Nikita. An even stronger factor, however, was that a half year after Phoenix's death, Kurt Cobain killed himself. It's odd that the cultural arithmetic reveals that our society has room for only one beautiful dead blond boy, but apparently we don't want too many symbols of snuffed potential. So River Phoenix is a half-remembered icon.

Had he gotten clean and stayed alive, however, I believe he would have found his way forward: he was a hugely gifted actor who wanted to do groundbreaking work, even when the people around him were encouraging him to just cash in on his good looks. I think there's every chance he would have grown into one of the leading actors of his generation.

BNR: The story you tell about the actor's childhood -- especially the years his family was in Venezuela as part of the Children of God sect -- raises the unnerving possibility that the actor's sensitivity in his various roles was a direct product of years of what look like neglect or even abuse. How much of his talent do you think came out of his early years and the attendant damage?

GE: This is always a discomfiting question: how much of great artistry comes out of childhood pain? Would the Beatles have ever happened if John Lennon and Paul McCartney hadn't lost their mothers at a young age? Since the world is not a laboratory experiment with a control group of other Liverpudlians, we'll never know for sure. It seems likely that River Phoenix's perspective on the world, askew from normal society, came from his unconventional upbringing: in the Children of God, on the streets of Caracas, largely outside traditional schools. That certainly was part of his gift: his actor's ability to observe characters unlike himself and then inhabit them. He didn't publicly draw the connection between those parts of his life, maybe because he didn't want to blame his parents for what he had gone through, maybe because the alchemy of what experiences had made up his own personality was mysterious, even to himself.

BNR: One of the things that becomes clear is that he was not immune to the allure of self-mythologizing. This was a guy, after all, who carried around a copy of Henry Miller's biography of Rimbaud. Was the separation of illusion and reality a problem for Phoenix?

GE: I think self-mythologizing is a powerful thing for an artist. Lou Reed, who just passed away, was one of our greatest rock stars in no small part because of his abilities in that department. The ability to live inside a character's skin also grants you the ability to make yourself into somebody new away from the camera, which was something River had to do over and over, as his family kept moving around the world. Where it became a problem was specifically with drugs. If you tell enough people, with enough force, that you don't have a problem, you can convince yourself that it's true.

BNR: You make a case for Nancy Savoca's Dogfight as River Phoenix's best role -- despite the movie's commercial failure back when it was released. Dogfight was recently adapted as an Off-Broadway musical -- a sign that the film's long-term reputation might be evolving?

GE: For those who have never seen it: Dogfight is set in November 1963 and stars Phoenix as a marine about to ship out to Vietnam. In his one night off in San Francisco, he invites a plain coffee shop waitress with dreams of being a folk singer (played by Lili Taylor) to a party that is actually a "dogfight": a contest among the marines to see who can bring the ugliest date. When she finds out, she is rightly furious, but despite this horrible beginning, they spend the night together, walking around the city, gradually revealing their dreams and their inner selves to each other. It's a lovely, nuanced movie, and it utterly baffled the studio, which unceremoniously dumped it with a minimal release. While it doesn't have the cult following of Sneakers or even Explorers, to name two other Phoenix movies, I think it has gradually found an audience over the past couple of decades (as evidenced by the musical). A particularly fine discussion of it came a few years back, in an online conversation between the critics Sheila O'Malley and Matt Zoller Seitz.

BNR: The sequence of events that led to his death feature a large group of people, most of them close to the actor, who seemed incapable of getting him medical help when he needed it, despite very obvious signs that he was sick. Is it fair to say he died due to a collective failure on the part of those who were there?

GE: In the months before his death, Phoenix successfully dissembled, convincing many of the people around him that he didn't actually have a problem with drugs. I think it was a collective failure, certainly, but a common one, born of a generous impulse: wanting to believe in the best version of the young man they knew. On the night Phoenix died, many of the people with him were young themselves and understandably panicked by a medical emergency. His sister, Rain, was twenty years old; his brother, Joaquin (then called Leaf by many people), had turned nineteen that week. In hindsight, it's clear that their big brother's chances of survival would have improved if an ambulance had been called promptly, but if I had been in their shoes, I don't know that I would have handled the situation any better.

BNR: Has writing about River Phoenix's life changed the way you seem him onscreen?

GE: It's easy to overstate the connection between actors and their parts. River Phoenix didn't write (most of) the dialogue he spoke on screen, and as a teenager, his ability to steer his career had limits. That said, there are an extraordinary number of moments where his life and his movie roles seemed to be running in parallel, and I highlight them in the book in a series of chapters slugged "Echo." To pick a few: in Running on Empty, he played the eldest son of a family of '60s hippies who constantly moved around and changed their names (true in life). In The Mosquito Coast, Phoenix was again the eldest son of a family trying to step away from mainstream American culture, even moving south of the American border. And in Stand By Me, Phoenix's character literally fades off the screen at the end of the movie, as the narrator describes his senseless death at a young age. Knowing these areas of personal overlap inevitably changes how one watches his movies -- I believe it enriches the experience.

 

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