Studio Magazine (France) december 1993
(this is a translation from the french version published in France in Studio Magazine edition, to english. If anyone knows of an edition in english of that interview, please let me know at email@example.com)
River Phoenix : the Angel's Fall
by Michel Rebichon.
He was one of the most promising actors of his generation. He died suddenly last October 31 in L.A. Flash-back on a brief and brilliant career.
L.A., corner of Sunset Bvd and Larrabee St. On the pavement a chalked drawing pictures a river winding along an imaginary land. A fan wrote: "The eternal River flows". On the ground lies a heap of yellow roses, French marigolds and chrysanthemums, pictures, letters and candles with flickering flames. Nearby on the black door and walls, poems have flourished. It is here, on these few meters of pavement turned into a memorial by anonymous young people, it is here before the Viper Room, nightclub (and concert place) opened on last August 14 by Johnny Depp, that RP breathed his last on Halloween's night, on Oct. 31, victim of a heart failure. He was 23.
With morbid irony, that night of macabre carnival where, in USA, death is briskly laughed at, also saw the passing, in Italy, of Federico Fellini. As much the Italian Maestro's decease, after a long agony, looked like the chronicle of an announced death, as much this on "My Own Private Idaho"'s young hero, abrupt, sudden and unexpected, struck Hollywood in shock. Despite the common place, we're not all equal before death that whimsically, decides to strike blindly. By touching stars, death reminds to the ordinary people that we are, that life is not a mere walk down a road with an inexorable slope, but that we stand on the brink of a cliff dominating a precipice that we always try to overlook. Because of his young age (he died younger than James Dean) and his talent, RP's sudden death leaves us with the bitter frustration of being deprived from the performances he still had to give us. He, one of the most gifted and promising actors of his generation, he who had never appeared on screen without touching the audience to the core...
An upbringing far from traditions
Born on 1970, August 24 in Madras (Or.), RP was the elder of 5 children Leaf, Summer, Rain and Liberty, all now in show-business. He was 2 years old when his parents, very "Flower Power" hippies, missionaries for the "Children of God" sect, settled in South America where, from the age of 5, young River sings in the streets of Caracas. Six years later, his family, scared out by their religious leader's doings, goes back to Florida and chooses the name Phoenix as a sign of rebirth. "I've been raised in a very unconventional way, said RP, but my childhood was full of laughing, love and peace. It made me the free spirit that I am".
Under the pretext of an audition in L.A., his family travels to California in a bus. At 10, River and his sister Rainbow appear on T.V. on a regular basis and perform as audience arm-ups for the show "Real Kids". At 12, he's the hero of 22 episodes of "7 Brides for 7 brothers", the series inspired from the musical. Nominated twice as "best young actor in a series", he also stars in some TVmovies, including one where he plays teenage Robert Kennedy. He might have been only a pretty face, a teenage heartthrob, but he's different. It shows, it's obvious. And very soon, his personality shaped by this non-conventional upbringing and life conditions often difficult, asserts itself. He turns down very well paid commercials because he doesn't want to promote objects he doesn't use. Likewise he refuses an ad for jeans "because there's a leather label on the back pocket" and that "as a convinced vegan he doesn't want to support leather traders".
He naturally goes from TV to cinema. After Joe Dante's "Explorers" in 1985, he gets his first personal success as the leader of a kids pack finding a corpse in Rob Reiner's "Stand by Me". Right away he compels what will become his mark, his style: spontaneity bestowed with a strong emotive power. The light he radiates, his languid moves, his sulk, his way to mutter rather than talking, his rebellious sensuality appealing to girls and boys, his independence as obvious as his vulnerability, draw audience and directors. He's not yet 16 and there he faces Harrison Ford in Peter Weir's "Mosquito Coast", a movie on a family in search for a paradise lost in Amazon. He goes on with "Running on Empty" where, as a passionate pianist, he plays the son of a couple of radicals pursued by the FBI, and where he costars with his first love, Martha Plimpton. His amazing performance in this Sidney Lumet's movie owes him a nomination for the Academy Award of Best Supporting Actor. At 18!
"Everything I've done has its own reason, I suppose, even if, at the time, I wasn't always aware of it." River Phoenix has no career plans, he chooses by instinct. But as though he gives the impression to be totally immersed in his characters, he's nonetheless extremely lucid on the sometimes dangerous boundaries separating fiction from reality. "I always kept my ego and happiness apart from my work. I don't need my work to be satisfied with myself. When actors put too much of themselves and their own image in a part, and that some day they're not looked at the same way, or when they start getting old and don't get parts anymore, then they come down to earth very harshly and it really hurts. I don't want that."
He stands for Human Rights
He defines himself as "a combination of various haspirations and inspirations". And gives capital importance to his family, with which he shares a nearly tribal connection (especially his mother who's also his agent and cooks him tofu on the sets), to music (he formed a band, Aleka's Attic, to sing his poems and play guitar), to his friends (including Keanu Reeves and Flea, Red Hot Chili Peppers' bass guitarist) and to nature, far from Hollywood-Babylon that he's decided to keep away from, " because of the bad influences and futility prevailing there". Faithful heir to his parents, he also stands up for Human Rights and Environmental Causes.
He keeps doing films, from one style to another, as much comfortable before a praised director's camera that before an indie's : "A night in the life of Jimmy Reardon" by William Richert, "Little Nikita" by Richard Benjamin (both unreleased in France), "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" by Steven Spielberg (where he plays teenage Indy), "I love you to death" by Lawrence Kasdan (where he meets Keanu Reeves), and of course "My Own Private Idaho" by Gus Van Sant. In this movie, River Phoenix plays - without make-up as usual - a drugged-out prostitute suffering from narcolepsy, a strange disease that throws him unexpectedly in a kind of coma, head in the clouds. Once more, he meets the theme that would mark out his brief but brilliant career: the attempt to create a familial relationship in an unusual background.
"For me, 'My Own Private Idaho' is a universal movie because it talks about everybody's quest for a home". This story of love and friendship, where longing for absoluteness and yearning for purity outshine daily sordidness, where he is both a fallen angel and forever drawn to heaven, wins him a great critical acclaim and a Best Performance Award in Venice, and make him one of Hollywood's most respected young actors.
Another RP with a dark and secret side
He's doing one movie after another: "Dogfight" by Nancy Savoca (unreleased in France) where he plays a macho marine on R&R, "Sneakers" by Phil Alden Robinson where, as a hacker, he meets again Robert Redford for whom he'd had an audition for "A River Runs Through It". Then "Silent Tongue" by Sam Shepard and "The Thing Called Love" by Peter Bogdanovitch (with his girlfriend Samantha Mathis), that we'll see in the next months. He later goes on with the shooting of George Sluizer's "Dark Blood", that will probably never be achieved as there were still 4 weeks of filming left to do. He was soon to star opposite to Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas in Neil Jordan's "Interview with the Vampire". And he was going to play the part of Arthur Rimbaud opposite to John Malkovich/Verlaine.
Now that US press alludes to his death mentioning valium, cocaine or GHB ("the designers' drug"), hinting about another River Phoenix with a dark and secret side, the shadow of the young poet of rebellion and immoderateness of senses, illuminations and seasons in Hell, spreads more than ever over this tragically ended destiny. River Phoenix's dream was to buy hundreds of acres of Rain Forest and to make it a last paradise. Real Heaven, if it exists, opened him its gates too soon. Too soon.
The text on this page © 1993 Studio Magazine (France).