Maybe River Phoenix thought his name guaranteed immortality. A river runs forever; a phoenix rises from its own ashes. But the young star ran out of luck early on Halloween morning, when he staggered out of the Viper Room, the newest hot spot on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, and collapsed writhing on the sidewalk. His girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis, tried to revive him as his brother Leaf frantically phoned for help. River Phoenix was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he soon died. An autopsy was inconclusive, with toxicology results not due for at least a week, but according to hospital sources, valium and cocaine were detected in Phoenix's blood. He was 23.
News of his death sent a sick seismic thrill through Generation X. The entrance to the shuttered Viper Room quickly became a Phoenix shrine, with flowers, candles, photographs and poems placed near the spot where he fell. Around the country young people mourned. "I was surprised at how surprised I was -- how much it affected me," notes Paul Lauth, 25, a Miami courier. "His acting was natural, unaffected, real." Some regretted the loss of great Phoenix roles: "I felt he got cheated and I got cheated," says John Pinto, 25, of Chicago. Other fans suspended belief. "I was waiting for him to come back to life," says Gabrielle Brechner, 17, a senior at Manhattan's Dalton School, "the way they always do in the movies." The shock arose less from the apparent stupidity of Phoenix's death than from the stanching of both a munificent acting gift and a winning screen personality.
The oldest of five children of a hippie couple who served in Latin America as missionaries for the Children of God, River made his first impact at 16 in Stand By Me. His film roles could often be mined for flecks of autobiography. In The Mosquito Coast he played the son of a renegade idealist who sequesters his family in a Central American village. In Running On Empty he gave a beautifully judged, Oscar-nominated performance as the son of fugitive radicals trying to raise a family. And if flashbacks weren't evident, portents were. The 1991 My Own Private Idaho, for which he won the National Society of Film Critics' best-actor award, begins and ends with Phoenix, as a drugged-out gay hustler, suffering narcoleptic convulsions.
Audiences saw a vulnerable decency in Phoenix. He could play a devoted son, a loyal pal, a gentle first love -- or a lost boy. And gradually, he became lost among his peers. Johnny Depp (co- owner of the Viper Room) got stronger roles; Keanu Reeves put his satanic good looks to productive use; Robert Sean Leonard assumed the mantle of sensitive swain. Phoenix's last two films have long gone unreleased.
His death is stoking a vigorous debate. "The River Phoenix image was pure," says New Yorker David Kleinhandler, 16. "But I guess he wasn't. He betrayed his image." Outside the Viper Room, one admirer left a painting: a blue stream surrounded by green grass and the message THE ETERNAL RIVER FLOWS.
However the actor died, his mourners knew that he deserved to live, because he had lived inside them and would continue to. He was a love object and an object lesson -- a reason to believe and forgive. In understanding this, his fans showed more maturity than River Phoenix and many of his fast-lane friends. The audience, at least, could tell the difference between starlight and real life.