Phoenix sings and plays the guitar in the movie directed by Peter Bogdanovich for Paramount Pictures Corp. The film depicts the life of the egotistical musician James Wright. Paramount got Phoenix for the part because his name can be mistaken for a country singer.
"THIS IS RISKY STUFF," SAYS RIVER Phoenix, nervously holding a guitar in one hand and fiddling with a mike in the other. Pushing a hank of hair from his eyes, the star of Peter Bogdanovich's The Thing Called Love prepares to make his on-camera singing debut.
Phoenix plays James Wright, a "self-centered, narcissistic musician" who, along with costars Samantha Mathis, Sandra Bullock, and Dermot Mulroney, goes to Nashville (here depicted 30 miles north of Los Angeles) seeking fame, fortune, and fixes for their longing hearts.
"It wasn't a big leap for me to see River in this role," says Bogdanovich. "With a name like that, don't you think he sounds a little like a country singer?" This must have struck a chord with Paramount Pictures studio execs too. According to producer John Davis, they wouldn't touch the project--which required the stars to do their own warbling and guitar picking--until Phoenix signed on.
Despite a nasty head cold, the actors takes the stage, in front of 40 or so boot-stomping, arm-flinging dancers hired for the night from Denim and Diamonds, a packed-to-the-rafters yee-haw club in nearby Encino. You can just hear hearts breaking when Phoenix croons "Until Now," Rodney Crowell's edgy but sweet ballad about--you guessed it--the thing called love.
"In this scene, Samantha and I mend our fork in the love road," says Phoenix hoarsely. "Later, we find ourselves going back to my abode where I lay her out and have her."
Their ride in the saddle will merely be implied, however. "Orson Welles once said there are two things that are virtually impossible to do well in movies," explains Bogdanovich while eating his daily chow of plain oatmeal and a red apple. "That's prayer and sex. This gets pretty sexy, but there's no flesh to speak of. It's not like you get to see their . . ." The director waves his spoon in a sensual motion. "I think the actors wanted it to be a little more torrid than it is. You do get to see them kiss--and it's a very good kiss."