Juice March 1994

River Phoenix -


by Helen Barlow

River Phoenix was hailed as the best actor of his generation. With the world at his feet, Helen Barlow asks, how did it all come to this?

The flat black facade of the Viper Room would never give away its ultra cool interior, but that was always its intention. Sandwiched between two daggy convenience-type stores on L.A.'s infamous Sunset Strip, the Viper Room was conceived by actor Johnny Depp and his two partners as a cool, intimate place for some 200 people to chill out, listening to "Billie Holiday over the sound system," says Depp. "And Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra or Chet Baker." Once it opened, however, it became L.A.'s coolest club. With the idiosyncratic actor as its public face, it attracted everyone from Depp's rock buddies, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lemonhead Evan Dando, to soap brats Shannen Doherty and Tori Spelling. "It took on a life of its own," says Depp. "We had lines outside of the place."

On the 'night of October 30 the Viper Room was happening. Depp himself was onstage fronting a scratch band that included Flea, bass player with the Chili Peppers, and Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers, and the club housed its usual mix of stars and wannabes. Like L.A.'s infamous Roxy in the '70s, the Viper Room has an intimate back room where VIPs would hang, and, some say, do drugs. Certainly, if this was the case the practice is much more discreet than the heady days of the '70s. Johnny Depp recently vehemently denied allegations of drug use in the club. "I do wonder if these people think that I'm ignorant or insane -that I'm going to allow people to do drugs in a place that I am a part owner of. I would never allow that to happen."

River Phoenix was at the Viper Room with his girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis, his sister Rain and brother Leaf. His movements in the early evening are unconfirmed - some place him in an LA. recording studio - but according to sources at the club he was acting odd from the moment he arrived. "He called attention to himself by the way he was weaving through the crowd, unsteady on his feet," wrote a reporter from Entertainment Weekly. He was also spotted by a bouncer acting weird at the side of stage, and by l am he was in the men's room, trembling. When the shaking became worse he was helped outside the club and began convulsing violently on the footpath. While Samantha Mathis argued for assistance with a doorman and sister Rain attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Leaf called 911/Emergency, saying "I'm thinking he had valium or something."

Phoenix was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in full cardiac arrest, but all attempts to save him failed. At 1:51 am he was pronounced dead. While initial investigations as to the cause of death were unclear, later tests revealed a lethal cocktail of drugs, with extremely high levels of heroin, cocaine, traces of marijuana, the prescription sedative Valium and an over-the-counter cold medication.

Played out like the script from a schlocky TV mini-series, the death of River Phoenix has been turned into some sort of Generation X tragedy, symbolising the loss of hope and direction of a generation. The elements are all there - the brilliant future dashed, a la James Dean; the clean living guy with the dirty, secret other life; hard drugs; rock & roll; Hollywood celebrities; a highly unorthodox upbringing; religious cults.

In the first week of November, reports and treatises on Phoenix's death made front pages all around the world. Harrison Ford, who had acted with Phoenix in The Mosquito Coast and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, issued a statement expressing his sadness: "He played my son once and I came to love him as a son and was proud to watch him grow into a man of such talent and integrity and compassion." Who Weekly magazine, the first to publish a detailed account of his life and death, recorded its biggest sales ever when Phoenix's face was on the cover. So it did it again in December. While most of River's family and close friends and the celebrities at the Viper Room on the night closed ranks and refused to comment, there was a massive outpouring of sadness and disbelief from people River's own age. In LA people left flowers and poetry in River's honour on the footpath where he collapsed.

Johnny Depp closed the Viper Room for ten days out of respect, and also to throw the heat off him and the club. In late January he broke his silence on the matter, saying, "A young man with a good head on his shoulders and a promising future, a guy who was a good human being, made a mistake. And it's a mistake that anyone of us could make. And kids should know that, and adults should know that. People should know that... You don't tarnish the memory of this person because he made a mistake."

While sad and unfortunate, the truth is that River Phoenix was a guy who bought into the biggest celebrity cliche of all and fucked up, big time. While he was a known vegan, a vocal supporter of animal rights organisations and someone who clearly touched a lot of people he worked or mixed with, Phoenix was obviously no saint. But then, who is? One doesn't mix in the circles he mixed in and not see drugs. And one doesn't happen upon a mix of drugs like that which sent his body into shutdown the first time they experiment.

Named after the river of life in Herman Hesse's novel Siddhartha, River was born into a family that he described as having an "honest bonding," but which by any measure was unorthodox. His parent's penchant for unusual names {brother Leaf and sisters Rain, Liberty and Summer} was only the part of it. In 1973 the family moved from its home in Oregon to Caracas, Venezuela, where parents John and Arlyn worked as missionaries for the religious cult, the Children of God. It was here, at the age of five, that Phoenix's performing career began, when, together with his sister Rain, he busked the streets of Caracas for food and money. However, as his father moved up in the cult's ranks he grew more and more disillusioned with the organisation and in 1977 they left Caracas, returning to the U.S. as stowaways on a boat.

The family settled in Florida, where River and Rain continued to perform in talent quests and fairs. When Arlyn recognised old school friend Penny Marshall on an episode of Laverne & Shirley she wrote to Paramount Studios trying to interest them in her kids.

"They answered 'yeah, we'd be happy to see your children. If you're ever out in California by all means look us up, but don't make a special trip'," River recalled in Movieline magazine. "And so, of course, we just threw everything into the old station wagon and drove out to Burbank. We had a shitty little apartment in North Hollywood. No kids were allowed, so we had to hide in the closet when the landlady came around to inspect the place."

River began doing commercials, but admitted he never really nailed it: "I was terrible for commercials -I couldn't smile on cue." When he was 12 he got a break playing a regular in the TV show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and at 15 he made his feature film debut as a computer boffin in the little seen Explorers.

His real emergence, however, came a year later, in 1986, when he received rave reviews for his performance in. Rob Reiner's acclaimed Stand By Me (the film also starred Corey Feldman later busted for heroin). The same year he also starred alongside Harrison Ford in Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast, a film whose storyline – about an obsessed inventor who drags his family off to live in South America -closely mirrored River's life. "Paul Theroux didn't steal my life story," he joked later of The Mosquito Coast, "I just misplaced it. Needless to say, I was very comfortable with the material."

Next came roles in the stinkers A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and Little Nikita (1988), but Phoenix turned a bad year around in the Sidney Lumet directed Running On Empty. In what was a strong ensemble piece Phoenix shone, his performance earning him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and the praise of the respected director. "River's so talented I don't know where he's going to go," said Lumet. "The world is open to him."

A strong cameo in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and a solid showing in the uneven comedy I Love You to Death (1990) consolidated River's growing reputation and his own self-confidence. He began seeking more challenging roles, chasing the lead Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It (which ultimately went to Brad Pitt), while turning down another in A Kiss Before Dying, despite repeated offers (the role eventually went to Matt Dillon).

This search led him to My Own Private Idaho. Portraying a narcoleptic gay hustler attracted to Keanu Reeves, My Own Private Idaho stands now as River's finest achievement, a moving performance full of subtlety and insight. Directed by Gus Van Sant, with whom River became very close, Idaho, and Phoenix's performance particularly, were critically hailed, River ultimately winning the Best Actor trophy at the Venice Film Festival.

My Own Private Idaho also turned the blonde-haired, blue-eyed actor into a gay icon, but the openly gay Van Sant claims it wasn't his doing. He says that Phoenix convinced him to revise the film's pivotal campfire scene so that he made a pass at Keanu Reeves. "He acts as if he's really in love with him, whereas I wrote the character as more out-of-it," said Van Sant. Phoenix also has a cameo role in Van Sant's up-coming Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which marks the feature film debut of sister Rain. Van Sant proclaims Phoenix "the best actor of his generation."

Phoenix followed Idaho with roles in the small-town '50s drama Dogfight and a strong performance in the computer hacker thriller Sneakers, holding his own alongside Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and Sidney Poitier. His last completed film was The Thing Called Love, the ballad of two country singers in which he starred with Samantha Mathis. When he died Phoenix was on the verge of perhaps his best work. He was halfway through shooting Dark Blood with Australian actress Judy Davis, now shelved, and was about to begin work on the anticipated blockbuster Interview with the Vampire, starring alongside Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. His part has since gone to Christian Slater.

As River Phoenix established his acting credentials he also became known for his activism. He was a celebrated vegan, gracing the cover of U.S. magazine Vegetarian Times when he was only 18, and was outspoken against the fur trade and scientific experimentation on animals. With his band Aleka's Attic, in which he sang and played guitar alongside his sister Rain, he performed at various PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) events and contributed to the benefit album Tame Yourself; alongside k.d. lang, the B-52's, Indigo Girls, and Michael Stipe.

By all accounts, along with his healthy meat-free diet Phoenix initially eschewed drug use. When speaking to Movieline magazine's Michael-Angeli in 1991, River commented on a rumour he'd heard about himself using acid: "It would frighten the hell out of me to be a creature walking around in the '90s taking acid. Acid doesn't supply you with answers. I grew up talking to people your age [Angeli is in his early thirties]. My best friends since I was eight were your age. And I've heard every acid trip in the world. I've been there, I've really been totally, completely able to understand and comprehend the experience -to the point where I've been stimulated vicariously. The thing is, right now, why throw a curve on life?"

Somewhere along the line, however, his straight edge blunted. "He was absolutely anti-drug," says a Hollywood producer who had worked with him. "Then he went crazy." Some sources now suggest his drug use began when he was preparing for his role in My Own Private Idaho, which explored the seedy side of street living. While this is clearly taking method acting a step too far, Phoenix was widely known and respected for his intensive research.

"When we met he was exactly like his character," says director Peter Bogdanovich, recalling Phoenix's arrival on me set of The Thing Called Love. "I thought that was the real River. But three weeks later I realised that he wasn't like that. He was this sweet, adorable, intelligent, outgoing, hippy kid. He was also a little dangerous; there was a lot of silence around the guy. Jeff Bridges, who walked and talked like a Texan the whole time in The Last Picture Show, is the only other actor I know who gets so completely into a role."

River admitted that his preparation for Idaho had a lasting effect on him. "Without wanting to sound really profound, one thing I discovered is that everything is relative," he told JUICE contributor Alex McGregor when Idaho was released. "Once you get into that street groove, the other side -the straight side- looks really scary. Too clean and uncomfortable. And you want to get away from that."

It appears now that in the year leading up to his death Phoenix's drug use was becoming increasingly obvious. In the "Lost On Sunset" article which appears on Page 58, journalist Trish Oeitch Rohrer places Phoenix at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in early '93 where a counsellor remembers Phoenix saying something like, "I'm here because my manager and my publicist and my agent want me to be here. I drink and I do drugs, but I don't have a problem."

Reports from the set of both The Thing Called Love and Dark Blood however, indicate that it was becoming a problem. A crew member from The Thing Called Love told Who Weekly that Phoenix "seemed real thin and unhealthy" and "acted messed up and confused;" while another revealed, "There was one night they couldn't get a performance out of him."

A casual acquaintance confirmed that Phoenix seemed to be going through a change. "I saw him at a wedding in California about a year ago and he was totally out of it," she told Entertainment Weekly. "It was a formal affair. Even the Chili Peppers were wearing cheesy '70s tuxedos. But River arrived at 9.30am, drinking a bottle of wine, dressed in sneakers, a pair of shaggy, ripped shorts, and a dirty T -shirt. People were angry with him."

Watching The Thing Called Love in the shadow of Phoenix's tragic death, one can't help but recall Peter Sellers' emotion-charged final film, Being There, itself a film about death. But while Sellers knew that death was not far away as he made the film, it seems that Phoenix was oblivious of the tight-rope he was walking.

The Thing Called Love, while far from River's best film, was a movie he was passionate about and one which reflected his many and disparate talents. Centred around Nashville's Bluebird Cafe, where country songwriters come from all over the U.S. to showcase their talent, the film tells of four young hopefuls (Phoenix, Samantha Mathis, Dermot Mulroney and Sandra Bullock) who find their plans complicated by matters of the heart. Director Peter Bogdanovich was so impressed by Phoenix when they discussed the film over the phone that he cast the actor there and then.

"River was creative and brilliant," said Bogdanovich prior to Phoenix's death. "He created his character for The Thing Called Love. He influenced the script and songs, and was an inspiration to the other actors. He had a great nerve and didn't try to be likeable, or to win your affection. He didn't give you lots of winsome looks. Actually, the studio was concerned that he wasn't likeable enough."

Bogdanovich cast Mathis (Pump Up The Volume, Super Mario Brothers), because he "thought she was very good and very strong. I liked her and River liked her too. And she liked River." Asked about their relationship while on set, Bogdanovich replies discreetly. "I think they became very close. Yes, very close."

Bogdanovich wanted his cast to be in their early twenties, and actively sought their input. "I needed actors who had come of age in the '90s," he explains. "I wanted to know their feelings about the characters. It was very much a collaboration between us."

Phoenix and Bogdanovich also agreed that there would be no gratuitous sex or violence in the film. "I don't agree with sloppy and gratuitous sex and the way they want to inject all this formula stuff into movies that doesn't fit the story," Phoenix concurred. "It's about doing honest and truthful work. In 10 years I may have to watch that movie on video with my daughter, and I'd hate her to see something that compromises the human spirit just for bucks."

After River's death Peter Bogdanovich admitted, "We were all worried about the crowd he was with. L.A. bothered him. Something about it triggered all the more difficult parts of his life."

When Phoenix wasn't making films or on an occasional tour with Aleka's Attic, he lived in a ramshackle house near his close-knit family in Florida. But that time was becoming less frequent. He was spending more and more time in L.A., and if he was looking for drugs -whether it be grass, Ecstasy, heroin, coke or the new hot drug GBH -in LA they were always easy to find.

While it is stretching the truth to suggest that River Phoenix's life was a fraud, it is true that he harboured contradictions - and that for too long people either didn't see them or chose to ignore them. But then, as River admitted himself, he liked to toy with the truth: "Depending on the interviewer and the publication, I lie all the time," he warned Alex McGregor. "One, it gives me some variety, and, secondly, they'll change the truth anyhow, so I may as well say what I like and then possibly they'll come up with the real story by coincidence. Especially when it's about personal things, I lie, because what does it matter? I am a kind of minute commodity of some sort, my name is no longer my own."

No, River Phoenix's name is no longer his own. It now belongs to the myth-makers, to be turned into the new James Dean, the lost hope of a lost generation. The real story is, as Johnny Depp put it: River Phoenix made a mistake. Trouble is, it was a big one.

Additional reporting by Gina Anderson and John O'Donnell

The text on this page © Juice March 1994

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