Out, February/March 1994

We All Live Down River

by James A. Baggett

One reporter tries to make sense of the Phoenix he knew.

Who cares if River Phoenix was gay or straight? I don't, and I knew him. Sort of. As the editor of a teen screen magazine during the late 80's, I was on a first-name basis with most of Hollywood's box-office boys : Johnny, Robert, Christian, Charlie, Val, Matthew, Dweezil, all the Coreys, all the Jasons, and – like every other flack-bombarded homo journalist in New York – River. Antimacho, quietly intense, physically gifted, politically correct, garage-band jamming, animal-rights activist, child of flower children, herbal-tea drinking River Phoenix.

Ever since the 23-year-old actor dropped dead outside the entrance to the Viper Room on L.A.'s Sunset Strip last Halloween, Phoenix's sexuality has been the subject of cocktail conversation among both gays and straights across the country. Speculation soon lost touch with reality. "A good thing I try to keep in mind," Phoenix told me during our first interview, early in 1988, "is not to get lost. I try not to get caught up in the whole scene and get carried away. It gets so intense out there sometimes. It is so easy to get sidetracked and so involved in the mirror and the magazines that it carries you away into some la-la-land that isn't really real. It's too bad, because I know I am a figure for many people out there who are real people… So I try to at least be real."

Real enough for queer moviegoers to recognize in Phoenix their own longing and desire reflected on-screen. Real enough for Gus Van Sant to cast Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho as the androgynous street-punk hustler Mike, who tearfully confesses beside a campfire to Keanu Reeves' character, "I just want to kiss you, man." Real enough for Phoenix to be nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty. Real enough for gay men to project their sexuality onto Phoenix just as we've done with James Dean ever since his premature death almost 40 years ago. ("People say these names to me," said Phoenix, "like James Dean. I mean, like, I've seen parts of East of Eden, but I don't know a lot of this stuff.")

One warm spring evening a few years ago, I joined Phoenix and his then girlfriend Martha Plimpton for their prom date. Over dinner at Nirvana in New York (we were all vegetarians) River asked me if I minded if he asked me a personal question. Martha kicked him beneath the table, anticipating an inappropriate interrogation. "Of course," I told him.

"When did you first realize you were gay?" he asked seriously.

"Well, I always felt different from my three brothers, but by the time I hit adolescence I knew that I was attracted to other boys," I answered.

"How can you tell if a person is gay?"

"You can't."

"What do two guys actually do when they have sex?"

I told him. "The actual act itself is probably more mundane than your imagination would lead you to believe," I added.

"Are you worried about AIDS?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered, "but I'm not a casual person and I've always practiced safer sex."

"How do you do know what's safe and what's unsafe?"

And so it continued throughout the evening. I felt then – and to some degrees still do today – that he was asking me these questions because he could (for perhaps the first time of his life) without being pegged a queer for wondering about homo life in the 20th century. I was safe. I was obviously gay. And we were with his girlfriend.

Of course, more than a handful of boys have stepped forward since his death to announce that they had bonafide homosex with Phoenix. There's even a particularly loathsome rumor circulating Hollywood that corrolates his overdose with a suicidal fear that his relationship with a male producer was about to be revealed in the press.

Why do gay men and lesbians feel compelled to make Phoenix a legitimate gay icon? Are we so desperate for role models that we try to justify our sexuality through every sexually ambiguous figure that we perceive to be sympathetic? And how can we allow the tabloids to lay the blame for Phoenix's substance abuse and death on his alleged repressed homosexuality?

To answer the first two questions is simple and something that Phoenix recognized even at age 19: "It happens when you're human in your acting," he said. "That's what I think realism is – you feel like you know someone because the character is a genuine person, a person who is not at all acting. Something else too is that people, to some degree, do not want to let go of something you portray."

As for the drug issue, Phoenix's overdose is less a sobering byproduct of his early success in Hollywood than it is a reminder that drugs are stronger than people, regardless of race, age, sex, profession, geographic location, socioeconomic status - and sexual predisposition. Period.

"Sometimes I get really scared that I might jerk away from my original intentions of what I can do once I got into the position that I'm getting into," Phoenix told me the last time I spoke with him. "You can destroy yourself and your mind and the people around you because you get so involved in your work. There's a fine line between living up to your morals and trying to be a good example and trying to leave this planet a better place."

James A. Baggett

The text on this page © 1994 February/March 1994, Out Magazine.

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