River Phoenix's death has startled and depressed everyone I know, even people who had previously dismissed movie stardom as a form of corporate-induced mass hypnosis. About 72 hours after his fatal collapse, a cynical friend and I happened on a recent television interview in which the earnest young actor was laying out his future plans, and we burst into horrified tears. Weird. That's what we keep saying: Weird that he's dead; weird that we care so much. Phoenix seems to have been admired by a whole lot of people in relative secrecy- an artist whose work insinuated itself into viewers's good graces, no matter how faltering its particular vehicle, nor how initially cold-hearted his audience. To wit: As I write this, Hard Copy, hardly a show known for its moral fortitude, is heaping praise on a paparazzi photographer who couldn't bring himself to document the actor's dying convulsions.
The word on the streets, even in the gossip columns, had always had Phoenix living a pretty honorable and pristine existence relative to the goings-on of his peers- a poetry-reading, vegetarian, open-minded, Democratic life, free of Shannon Doherty's creepiness, Judd Nelson's self-destructiveness, Mickey Rourke's bombast. Occasionally you'd hear about him standing tensely and unsociably on the fringe of some art gallery opening; S/M performer Bob Flanagan, once a member of the improvisational comedy troupe the Groundlings, remembers Phoenix staggering drunkenly onto the stage during one of their skits. But big deal. He was a kid. Mostly he seemed, if anything, too serious, too incapable of relaxing into a benign mindlessness, even for a minute. In a recent issue of Detour magazine, he positively excoriated many of his fellow actors for being ego-driven, and spoke of wanting to move not just out of L.A., but out of this wretched country entirely. Nonetheless, he did continue to live here, and he did apparently die under the influence of drugs at a trendy local nightspot. So it's hard to know what to think right now.
Death always focuses people, even if the demystification process takes years in some cases. It shouldn't with Phoenix, since his sincerity and forthrightness have never been in question. Ultimately, barring unforseen revelations, his name, his work, will acquire that particular cult holiness that people naturally create to fill in the blanks around the prematurely taken. Phoenix will be our James Dean, just like so many pundits are predicting. Meanwhile, by default, his fellow "outsider" types like Keanu Reeves, Matt Dillon, et al., are stuck being our Marlon Brando, if they're lucky. And that's because actors can't compete with their fans' imaginations, and the accomplishments we'll fantasize for a hypothetical mature Phoenix can't help but outstrip the potential feats of the bona fide middle-aged Phoenix. Life's funny, and even a little disgusting, that way.
Comparisons between Phoenix and James Dean are lazy, not to mention ubiquitous at this point, though they did share several of the qualities that separate great actors from mere signifiers of glamour. Both were extremely attentive to detail yet seemingly incapable of submerging their actual emotions under an artifical personality. No matter how peripheral Phoenix's role- the scatterbrained junior hippie in I Love You To Death, the poet/Casanova in The Life and Times of Jimmy Reardon, the loyal, spooked son of Harrison Ford's megalomaniac in The Mosquito Coast- he was always a little more perceptive and soulful- more real- than anyone else onscreen. Even in as offbeat and dislocated a milieu as the Portland street-hustler scene of My Own Private Idaho, Phoenix's Mike stood out as unusually lonesome- someone who was afraid of, and simultaneously astonished by, his squalid conditions, who desperately sought affection from others while at the same time avoiding sympathizers like the plague. It was a performance that, like most of Dean's, seemed to distill the confused melancholy of an emerging generation.
Phoenix was the son of hippie parents. He sometimes described his acting style as an attempt to represent how he felt upon trading his family's blanket humanism for the film industry's hatred of the unrepentent individual. Actress-performer Ann Magnuson, who co-starred with Phoenix in Jimmy Reardon, once remarked to me with a kind of amazement how solid and unspoiled he seemed even then, in the teen-idol phase of his career. As someone who entered showbiz with her own mixed feelings, she wondered how or even if he'd survive its multifarious forms of corruption. Maybe that very struggle explains why, as he aged, his performances exuded ever more sadness and pointed discomfort. His best recent work found him playing overgrown kids who clung for their lives to youthful notions of a perfect romantic and/or familial love.
In a profession that divides its young into marginalized wackos with integrity like Crispin Glover and John Lurie, or hipster sellouts like Christian Slater and Robert Downey, Jr., Phoenix was that once-in-a-decade actor honest enough to connect powerfully with people his own age, and skillful enough to remind members of an older generation of the intensity they'd lost.