Esquire, March 1994 v121 n3 p108(10)

River, with love and anger

By Tad Friend

River Phoenix's death has made his friends and family question their knowledge of the actor and has given the public insight into his drug-affected lifestyle. Phoenix's drug usage was spasmodic. Some of his friends are angry over his death, yet others feel he is a martyr.

HEART PHOENIX sat on the edge of the stage and beckoned everyone near. The 50 People in Paramount Studios' screening room gathered around like disciples. A short, tan woman with graying hair, Heart has a saintly way of soothing fears. The mourners needed her now; her son River's memorial service had been wrenching. During their tributes, Christine Lahti, River's mother in Running on Empty, and Iris Burton, River's agent and "second mother," had broken down.

They and others had recalled Phoenix's mercurial abandon, his peculiar combination of heart-stopping innocence and ageless wisdom, his "vegan," or ultravegetarian, beliefs, and, always, the eggshell beauty of his acting. Seeking consolation, they had groped to trace in Phoenix's life a narrative arc, a theme, even a moral.

But River Phoenix had a stubborn case of the vagabond disease that afflicts celebrities: He affected others deeply yet narrowly before moving on. Iris Burton was not the only one present who had privately wondered, in the three weeks since Phoenix's death, whether she had really known him, whether he hadn't been acting a part around her.

Heart spoke, holding Rob Reiner's hand for support. Her hopes for her son had always been on a wholly different plane than most stage mothers'. "We believed we could use the mass media to help change the world," as Heart puts it now, "and that River would be our missionary." She tried to explain that calling to the mourners, saying that she'd sensed from the beginning, as her labor extended to three and a half days, that River didn't want to be in the world. She told how she had awoken two days after his death, understanding for the first time why dawn is called "mourning," and suddenly had a vision of how God had tried to convince River to be born one more time. River told God, "I'd rather stay up here with you." So they bargained, Heart said, smiling. God was persuasive, and River offered to go for five years, and then ten, and finally agreed to visit earth, but only for twenty-three years.

A beatific silence filled the room, vibrating like a sustained bass note. "I was shocked by how many strong, grown-up people River had gotten to in such a deep, emotionally way," says director Alan Moyle. "We were all united," says actor and publicist Mickey Cottrell. "The room seemed almost hallucinatorily beautiful."

Heart then invited others to speak. After a few further testimonials, director John Boorman suddenly blurted out from the corner of the stage: "Is there anybody here who can tell us why River took all those drugs?"

The question quivered in the air. River's young sisters, Liberty and Summer, ran out, and Heart looked astonished.

And then Samantha Mathis, Phoenix's girlfriend and the co-star of his last completed movie, The Thing Called Love, spoke from the front row for the first time. "River was a sensitive," she said with great tenderness, using the word as a noun. "He had so much compassion for everyone and everything that he had a weight on his heart." She paused and added that Phoenix "was obsessive. When he wanted to cat artichokes he would eat ten at a time. He did everything to that degree."

Mathis's was a brave statement, as she had been heartsick with Phoenix for breaking his vows to stay drug-free. But her gloss on Phoenix's life--that he was a Byronic hero, felled by outsize pain and hunger-joined a long line of unifying theories. For instance, that "this innocent little bird got his wings clipped in the most evil city in the world" (Iris Burton); that he was a moody, hard-partying hypocrite who got what he deserved (the National Enquirer, et al.); that an artist had taken the risks of Method acting too far (Peter Bogdanovich).

Each theory is alluring because it provides an answer to the riddle of human motivation, but finally unsatisfying because it seems not quite the answer. "John Boorman's question was a good one," Heart Phoenix says now. "It's what everyone was thinking. Why, when you're living this dream. when you can have any car, any house, any girl, you're so famous--why? Why?' The only understanding I can come to is that River knew the earth was dying and that he was ready to give his passing as a sign."

But River Phoenix's story is not just a passion play; it is also a drama of fierce internal conflict. It was Phoenix's loneliness and anguish, after all, that so felicitously backlit the sadness in the characters he played. And it was that bewitching confusion that later led him to drugs.

"He's already being made into a martyr," says Phoenix's first and longtime love, actress Martha Plimpton. "He's become a metaphor for a fallen angel, a messiah. He wasn't. He was just a boy, a very good-hearted boy who was very fucked-up and had no idea how to implement his good intentions. I don't want to be comforted by his death. I think it's right that I'm angry about it, angry at the people who helped him stay sick, and angry at River."

"Why," asks his mother, Heart, "when you can have any car, any house, any girl, you're so famous--why? Why?"

THE MAIN THING in film acting is something going on in the face," said Gus Van Sant, "and with the really good ones, it's pain." Van Sant was in the basement of his sprawling Tudor house in Portland, Oregon, staring at his darkroom wall. On it hung five photos of River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant's film about Mike Waters (Phoenix) and Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), two street hustlers who travel to Idaho and Italy looking for Mike's mother. We've both just heard the coroner's report on Phoenix's bloodstream: cocaine and morphine (metabolized heroin), each in toxic doses, as well as traces of marijuana and Valium. "You don't read it as pain"--Van Sant drew on a Camel and moved closer, scrutinizing River's half-averted face--"but when you really look, it's pain."

Phoenix was never photographed grinning and very rarely smiling: He mistrusted cameras. And yet it was the camera that fixed Phoenix's image as a disillusioned innocent. Milton Nascimento, the Brazilian singer, once flipped on the TV in his New York hotel room and was transfixed by the last half of The Mosquito Coast, in which Phoenix weeps over his maniacal dying father. Nascimento wrote the ballad "River Phoenix (Letter to a Young Actor)" to celebrate that moment.

During Idaho's filming in the fall of 1990, nine cast and crew members, including Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, slept on scattered futons in Van Sant's house. It was a college dorm, a tribe, a family. Van Sant showed me his garage, where a bona fide garage band of Phoenix and Reeves and other Idaho actors, as well as Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bass player, often jammed late at night.

They played the sweet, off-kilter lyrics Phoenix had written for himself and for his band, Aleka's Attic--"Run to the rescue with love/and peace will follow" or "Hey, lo, where did your halo go?" They played the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, balancing ashtrays on Van Sant's black BMW and drinking wine, smoking marijuana. Sometimes they ended up in tears with Phoenix as he talked about the vanishing rain forests.

Back up the passageway was a gray-carpeted landing where Phoenix played guitar after everyone else had turned in. He liked the alcove's particular echo and played there ecstatically, until his fingertips bled. Music was his true love, what he intended for himself after he'd quit acting.

Phoenix's musical knowledge was encyclopedic, but he had never seen a James Dean film, much less one with Orson Welles. When director Peter Bogdanovich called him about The Thing Called Love, he discovered that Phoenix hadn't heard of him or his movies. Says Van Sant: "River was interested in movies only as they applied to his own character-drawing."

Of his roles, the character Phoenix drew in Idaho resembled him most: "kind of isolated, a nerd, a misfit," as Phoenix's friend Bobby Bukowski puts it. Mike Waters, as written by Van Sant, is a narcoleptic street hustler who sleeps with men to get by. Phoenix completely reimagined a campfire scene with Keanu Reeves so that it becomes the movie's fulcrum: Mike haltingly admits his feelings for Scott and says, "I really want to kiss you, man." "The character I wrote was blase and noncommittal," Van Sant says. "River made him gay and committal; he redeemed him with emotions."

Phoenix, who loved to catalyze and connect, found the low-affect Van Sant a challenge. "River was always doing things like saying, `I just love you,' and lunging to hug me," says Van Sant. "I'd freeze, maybe because my father used to grab my knee in a certain way. River didn't like that, so he'd hug me again, and I'd freeze again, and he'd yell at me."

Hugging Phoenix could be complex. "When he was being aloof I'd impulsively try to trap him in an emotional gesture by hugging him, and he'd flip out of my arms," says Alan Moyle, the script doctor for The Thing Called Love. "Ten minutes later he'd sneak up and hug me from behind. He wanted it to be his spontaneity, and more creative--he'd sidewind you, but you would consider yourself hugged."

Phoenix was into the mechanics of "spiking," or shooting up heroin.

AFTER TALKING with Van Sant, I went with Mike Parker to Portland's Vaseline Alley outside the City, a seedy gay nightclub where boys as young as twelve troll for forty-dollar "dates" from cruising johns. Parker, twenty-three, a friend of Van Sant's who is a former runaway, was Phoenix's main source for :he character of Mike Waters: The two of them often came down here at night to watch pickups.

"River would do what I had told him was a date-grabber," Parker said diffidently, "looking as young and innocent as possible, giving bursts of uncontrollable laughter, doing this"--he scuffed his feet boyishly. "All the marketing tricks."

Parker' s quick, shy eye movements, his graceful hand gestures emerging from head-down repose, were exactly Phoenix's in Idaho. Parker said he felt Phoenix extracting" those moves," but River was really interested in the brotherhood of the kids out here, how we were looking for acceptance and some man to be close to, looking for family. "

Phoenix was also curious about what Parker called "the glamour of men wanting to touch our bodies." While filming his previous movie, Dogfight, Phoenix had received oral sex from another male actor, saying he needed to do it because h, was going to play a gay hustler." He had other brief involvements with men over the years, and it was no big deal to, friends who knew. Phoenix simply didn't censor his afflictions. "If he loved somebody, male or female," says one oF Phoenix's longtime girlfriends, Suzanne Solgot, "he felt he should check it out."

"River dropped clues about his sexuality, but I never really followed them up," says Van Sant, who is gay. Phoenix asked ceaseless questions about Van Sant's relationship with his boyfriend: "What, exactly, do you do in bed? which side do you sleep on? Do you ever tell him to shut up? if you're angry at him, do you still buy him an expensive birthday present?" Van Sant says, "I would laugh because these questions were so personal, and he'd say, What? What?'"

In late 1992, a gay filmmaker (not Van Sant) staying at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles heard a knock at midnight and discovered Phoenix outside, drunk and wanting to talk about his struggles with bisexuality. The filmmaker reassured him that it would all work out. Phoenix's friends say that this moment may have been acted, dramatized--he seemed at times to try on complicated emotions, applying the Method to his life. Phoenix realized that these virtual-reality scenes left a confusing trail, and confessed in an interview that by his having "lied and changed stories and contradicted myself ... you could read five different articles and say, This guy is schizophrenic.'"

A self-described chameleon, Phoenix almost recklessly "invited the demons of the role into himself," as Bobby Bukowski puts it. Bukowski was the cinematographer on Dogfight, in which Phoenix played a marine. "After Dogfight I remember thinking he was being a real jarhead asshole--it took a month for him to become sweet again," Bukowski says, "and the street-urchin character in Idaho stayed with him and played into the whole drug thing."

Mike Waters's outlaw glamour left its residue. Idaho marked the real beginning of the struggle in Phoenix's life between his "drug friends" and his "goon," or sober, friends; between his urge to party and his urge to withdraw; between his urge to help the addicted and his urge to help himself

The struggle seemed almost to enact itself on his face. "His eyes made him the focus of energy in every scene, the centrifugal force so strong you didn't even try to duel him for control," says Dermot Mulroney, who later co-starred with Phoenix in Silent Tongue and The Thing Called Love. "The off-center eye [Phoenix's lazy right eye] read as madness, and the other read pure sanity. In a close-up, from one side he was the guy next door, and from the other he was absolutely insane."

Phoenix had long been intrigued by the drug culture in Jacksonville Beach, near his home in Micanopy, Florida. On New Year's Day 1990, he watched a rough cut of Van Sant's previous movie, Drugstore Cowboy, and was fascinated by the mechanics of "spiking," or shooting up. He tried pharmaceutical morphine and heroin soon after, and that fall in Portland smoked heroin several times.

"River started with heroin out of malaise, and because it's a delicious drug, but then the reason changed," says Phoenix's friend Matt Ebert, a former addict and hustler who advised him on his Idaho role. "Heroin makes you reflective, you look inside--and then you face the consequences of looking into the chasm."

"He was always pushing how far he could go," says Van Sant. "He'd go Can I say I feel like jerking off?'"

ONCE WHEN WE WERE fifteen, River and I went out for a fancy dinner in Manhattan," says Martha Plimpton, "and I ordered soft-shell crabs. He left the restaurant and walked around on Park Avenue, crying. I went out and he said,~I love you so much, why?...' He had such pain that I was eating an animal, that he hadn't impressed on me what was right." Her voice slows, becomes ragged. "I loved him for that, for his dramatic desire that we share every belief, that I be with him all the way."

Phoenix's friends often ended up being vegan like him. "He'd say about meat, That's not good for you, man, that'll kill you,'" says Peter Bogdanovich. "And he'd be smoking a cigarette, and he'd look at it and say, ~I know, man, I know.'" Phoenix scorched through people's barriers very fast: He had a gift for making everyone feel like his closest friend. He was a celebrant, "the kind of guy," says his friend Wade Evans, "that if you walked outside and it was snowing, you knew that the first thing on his mind was making a snowball."

He was both reflectively and spontaneously generous, serving himself last at dinners; asking that his Silent Tongue co-star, Sheila Tousey, be given his trailer because she spent so much more time in makeup; jumping to his feet when Kevin Kline beat him for best supporting actor at the 1989 Academy Awards. "I had to stop River from running to hug Kevin," his mother says. "It never crossed his mind that he hadn't won."

His public responses were often that unexpected. "He told me he didn't have a sense of humor until he was mine," says Gus Van Sant, "and that he never really got its logic, the surprise of the unexpected. You know: An elephant and a hippo, go into a bar, something is introduced, punch line. And he'd be like, ~Yeah, so what happened then?'"

Phoenix was the champ of hanging out. Many of his friends were much older, and he would spend days or even weeks with them, writing poetry, drinking wine, making videos, wrestling, playing frisbee (with considerably more enthusiasm than skill), cooking veggies (ditto), scarfing Japanese and Indian food. He couldn't sit still to be bored. "If the news was on when he came over to my house, he'd make a face at the TV and then leave," says Josh Greenbaum, the drummer in Aleka's Attic. Phoenix was always on the phone, making funny little jig movements with his hands and face, singing "Hey, Jude" when he was feeling heady. Jude was his middle name; the Beatles song had arrived in the world, like River, in 1970.

When he was uncomfortable, Phoenix's feverish energy could seem like arrogance. He'd write a song, decide "it's brilliant, brilliant," and refuse to change a word. "He was always pushing how far he could go," says Van Sant, in a comment echoed by others. "He'd go, Can I say I feel like jerking off? Why can't I say that? Why? Why can't I say that?' If you said, ~Not so loud!' he'd think that was a funny reaction, like you were paranoid. He'd get into shouting matches with people, where they were both screaming `You fucking moron!' but he'd end up liking them. He liked people who didn't let him get away with things."

He told some skinheads, "Go ahead, kick my ass, just explain why you're doing it." They were dumbfounded.

Phoenix skepticism of social conventions came from a childhood whose outline has become a singular fable of innocence. The outline: He was born in a log cabin in Madras, Oregon, to John and Arlyn (who later renamed herself Heart), itinerant fruit pickers who named him after the river of life in Herman Hesse's novel Siddhartha. The family joined the Children of God sect, then moved to Venezuela as missionaries in 1975. River and his younger sister, Rain, sang spirituals on the street to raise money, while the family slept in a rat-infested hut on the beach.

They left the church and took a freighter back to Florida in 1977. Inspired by Joaquin, age three, who'd seen men kill fish against the hull during the voyage home, River and Rain, ages seven and five, convinced the rest of the family to adopt the vegan, Garden of Eden ideal of not using animals, even down to not using milk and honey. In 1980 the family drove their Volkswagen bus to Los Angeles, depending on River in particular, but also Rain and Joaquin, known as Leaf, to make it big in entertainment.

The children sang on street comers and amazed casting directors, greeting them with kisses and an airy "Hi, we love you." They had no tarnish of greed or ambition; they shimmered in the sun. When Phoenix first saw a western upon returning from Venezuela, he was convinced that "companies paid people's families money to kill them. I just believed it."

At age eleven, Phoenix was on the TV show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; at sixteen, he was acclaimed as both an actor and a teen hunk for his role in Stand by Me. In 1987 the Phoenixes returned to Gainesville, and River bought the family a spread in nearby Micanopy, in 1989, as well as a ranch in Costa Rica.

In many respects Phoenix's was a magical childhood--no television, no formal schooling after fifth grade, and unstinting encouragement to care for others and to share his feelings. Consider how Phoenix lost his virginity: At age fifteen, on location for Stand by Me in Oregon, Phoenix was enamored of an eighteen-year-old family friend. They came to Heart and John and asked, "Can we have your good wishes?" River's parents, far from objecting, decorated a tent for the couple. "It was a beautiful experience," says Heart.

Phoenix's tutor, Dirk Drake, recalls some white-power skinheads taunting Phoenix at a party in 1988. "He smiled with an unbelievable innocence," Drake says, "and said, 'If you really want to kick my ass, go ahead, just explain to me why you're doing it.' The skinheads were dumbfounded. One guy stayed to say, `Ah, you wouldn't be worth it.' And River said, We're all worth it, man, we're all worth millions of planets and stars and galaxies and universes.'"

Phoenix was always creating families as he traveled, making new "brothers" and "sisters" and, particularly, "father," like Harrison Ford on The Mosquito Coast. Kevan Michaels, who was "dad to buddy son" with the sixteen-year-old Phoenix on the set of A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon remembers calling him a few years later on New Year's Day. "I can't understand why we're talking right now," Phoenix said, almost resentfully. "When you make a film you're a family, but when the film is over so is the family."

The outburst may have been provoked by some of Phoenix's own family difficulties. For his upbringing also contained a deep contradiction: He found himself part Atlas, shouldering the pain of the world, and part Antaeus, receiving strength only from contact with the unpolluted earth.

Says Martha Plimpton, who stayed with the Phoenixes after she and River met while filming The Mosquito Coast in Belize: "I love River's family; they brought him up to believe he was a pure soul who had a message to deliver to the world.

"But in moving around all the time, changing schools, keeping to themselves, and distrusting America," Plimpton continues, "they created this utopian bubble so that River was never socialized--he was never prepared for dealing with crowds and with Hollywood, for the world in which he'd have to deliver that message. And furthermore, when you're fifteen, to have to think of yourself as a prophet is unfair."

"Our kids were so comfortable with everyone, so mature," Heart Phoenix responds. "But as River grew," she admits, "he did become more and more uncomfortable being the poster boy for all good things. He often said he wished he couId just be anonymous. But he never was. When he wasn't a movie star, he was a missionary. There's a beauty in that--the man with the cause, the leader--but there's also a deep, loneliness."

The family had had prophet problems before: They'd actually left the Children of God because its leader, David Brant Berg, began encouraging the women in his flock to seduce potential converts--a tactic known as "flirty fishing"--and proudly referred to them as hookers for Jesus. Berg also advocated incest and sex with toddlers, and mailed circulars with graphic pictures of molestation. The Phoenixes felt betrayed, and River rarely talked about the sect. "They're disgusting," he would say angrily. "They're ruining people's lives."

River also had problems with his father, John Phoenix, a bearded, poetic man who hated cities. Phoenix hugely admired John, wrote songs with him, and before his death was planning to direct a movie about John's abuse-punctuated boyhood, called By Way of Fontana, with Joaquin playing John But John had problems with alcohol. Indeed, drinking ran in John's family.

"River would drink with his dad, so they could relate," says Suzanne Solgot. "But he worried the disease was in his bloodline." Says Martha Plimpton: "We had five million talks about his compulsive personality and his guilt and fear over not being able to save his father.

"His parents saw him as their savior," Plimpton says, and treated him as the father." Eventually, because the family was so generous about sheltering lost souls, up to a dozen people lived near or on the Micanopy property, in a motor home, two travel trailers, and in Phoenix's apartment above his recording studio; River supported them all.

Known to River's self-sufficient friends as "the Klingons" or "the tofu mafia," they worked as gardeners, security guards, secretaries, or simply grocery-unloaders. Many of them were gentle spirits whom Phoenix loved being around. "But in River's mind he was their father," Bobby Bukowski says. "And he had some anger about that."

"River and his father were always having breakthrough conversations where River would tell his father his feelings about alcohol, about their roles," Plimpton says. "But the next day nothing would change. River would then say to me, ~Well, it's not that serious, it's not that bad.'"

Plimpton had begun hearing the same refrain from Phoenix about himself "He really liked getting drunk and high," she says. "But he didn't have a gauge for when to stop. When we split up, a lot of it was that I had learned that screaming, fighting, and begging wasn't going to change him, that he had to change himself, and that he didn't want to yet."

He knew almost everyone his age in the business had smoked, snorted, or shot up--drugs are the mainstream.

PHOENIX TRIED to keep things lighter with his next girlfriend, Suzanne Solgot. When he met her, at a party, he shyly introduced himself as "Rio," and when another woman there said she was sure he was River Phoenix he denied it: "I'm not that guy, I'm nothing like him." "He was very private and mysterious," Solgot says. "We never talked much about our past or who we were, though I was always curious."

When they broke up last january, after three and a half years, it was for a familiar reason. "He didn't want me nagging him." Solgot says, "pointing out the contradiction between his public stands and what he was doing to his body."

Phoenix responded that his body was "a horse." But tormented by his public responsibility, he'd worry aloud, "What would those twelve-year-old girls with a picture of me over their bed think if they knew?" He didn't even want his fans to know he smoked and warned interviewers on that point.) Then he'd get angry that he was "under the microscope" and couldn't just cut loose like a normal young man.

All along he was a shepherd to friends who were really cutting loose. He knew that almost everyone his age in the business had smoked, snorted, or shot up. That drugs, long a sign of rebellion against the mainstream, now arc the mainstream. And that whereas it used to take years for people to kill their pain for good with alcohol, now they can do it instantly and without really trying.

"He had called me twice in the last couple of years to ask me to intervene with friends," says Bob Timmins, a drug counselor for Ringo Starr, Aerosmith, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others. "And he had made it passionately clear that he was committed with his time and money to making sure these people didn't die. In one case he drove [a prominent musician] to a clinic in Arizona."

In June of '91, Phoenix was horrified to hear that a famous young actor he'd worked with had shot so much heroin that his arm had abscessed, halting his film for three days. Phoenix confronted his friend and got him to admit "that it was true, that it had freaked him out, and that he hadn't done any smack since."

Still, by 1991 the evidence that Phoenix had his own problem was there to read. "You'd have to be really dumb or naive not to know he was high when he was," says Bobby Bukowski. "He was so clearly high he was like an alien."

In December 1991, Dirk Drake, who tutored all the Phoenix children, had a screaming match with Phoenix at Flea's house in Los Angeles. Flea was away and River was sharing space with several of Flea's friends, who would become known as River's drug friends. One of them, in a drug-induced jealous rage, had chased Phoenix around the house with a butcher knife.

"I told him I was furious about the glamour those friends attached to skag [heroin]," Drake recalls. "Don't worry," Phoenix said, "I have the fear of God." Drake sarcastically him to become a Baptist preacher. "No, no," Phoenix said--he'd meant his unique sense of religious election. "I want to live to see what the higher power's purpose is for me."

None of the people Phoenix tried to help offered help in return; turn; indeed in an excruciating irony, the Persian Brown heroin that helped kill Phoenix was provided by a friend he'd gotten into rehab. There arc several reasons Phoenix wasn't flagged down: His drug use came in spurts, and he was often clean; even close friends saw him infrequently and had difficulty assessing the problem, particularly as he bounced back well the next day; he had a beguiling trick of preemptively telling friends "a really stupid rumor" about his exploits and assuring them "what those assholes are saying" wasn't true; and he had a magisterial authority that convinced even knowledgeable addicts that he was in control. "He fooled a lot of people and he fooled himself," says Suzanne Solgot. "He was a great actor."

"He'd often be high when he called," says Martha Plimpton. "His language would become totally incoherent."

AS HE GREW AWAY from his family in the last three years of his life, Phoenix's missionary goals began to change. He never swerved from veganism, nonviolence, and universal love, and he still gave to Earth Save, Earth Trust, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace, and Farm Animals Institute, among others. But he'd started his own private projects: He was going to build a school in Costa Rica, and was larkishly happy working on a (still-secret) nationwide education project for middle and high schoolers,

"River realized that his family's ideas had been a little simplistic," says one close friend. "The idea that when he bought up rain forest in Costa Rica he was preventing Third World people from making a living there left him confused and unhappy."

Some of Phoenix's core precepts began to undergo a little reexamination. A director recalls, "He'd say to me, How about we do this movie where my brother and I and this gooner here'--some strange and interesting person River had taken under his wing for a few days--~travel across the country killing people--no, no, first we fuck them, and then we murder them.' He was kidding, but he was also wondering how to get people's attention and blow their minds."

Making movies had become more of a chore, and it's noteworthy that aside from james Wright, his seductively moody country singer in The Thing Called Love, Phoenix's last films don't amount to much. The brute capitalism of the business depressed him: While filming Sneakers in 1991, a movie he advised friends not to see, he grumpily told a friend, "I want to make $1 million on my next picture, $2 million on the one after that, and $3 million on the one after that." (He did, in fact, earn $1.5 million for The Thing.)

"He was very disappointed that his music never hit," says Dirk Drake. "In the late '80s he had always felt it was just a matter of days before the world would be healing itself with his beautiful music, before he was touching everyone the way the Beatles did."

Phoenix's sweet, breathless phone voice began to drag. "His language had become at times totally incoherent," says Martha Plimpton, "He'd often be high when he called, and I'd listen for twenty minutes to his jumbled, made-up words, his own logic, and not know what the fuck he was talking about. He'd say, You're just not listening carefully enough.'"

Phoenix's drug use wasn't ruining his acting, but one producer who weighed working with him in 1992 decided he was "largely unreliable." And there were two days filming The Thing in Nashville that fall when, director Peter Bogdanovich says, "the feeling was that he'd taken something. I wasn't sure he could drive the truck [as required for the scene]."

Phoenix was insulted and told Bogdanovich, "This is bullshit. I had half a beer and a cold pill." Some of the rumors about Phoenix's behavior on that set are attributable to his lazy eye: When he flutter-blinked to center his iris, he looked under the influence. That said, he sometimes was.

Flea, who was himself in recovery (and who was not a drug friend), spoke to Phoenix that Christmas, and so did Bobby Bukowski. After Phoenix came over one morning, still blasted on heroin and cocaine, Bukowski waited until Phoenix had taken a nap and eaten one of the garlic-and-raw-veggies-and-serial-glasses-of-water meals he used to cleanse his system and then gently confronted him.

"I'd rather you just point a gun at your head and pull the trigger," Bukowski said. "I want to see you become an old man, so we can be old friends together."

Phoenix wept and wept. "That's the end of the drugs," he promised. "I don't want to go down to the place that's so dark it'll annihilate me."

For several months afterward Phoenix would sometimes all Bukowski for support when he felt the urge to get high. But in January Heart noticed that he'd become distant: almost surly. Phoenix had striven mightily to keep his drug use from her, and he largely succeeded. But this time she realized "a substance might be involved" and asked River. He denied it.

Heart and John repeatedly urged River to take a long vacation in Costa Rica, but he continued to shun the demands; of solitude. Yet he was troubled by intimations of mortality. Early last year he had a recurrent daydream that spirits were coming for him, and he feared the fateful numerology of turning twenty-three on the twenty-third of August. When a friend saw him in a heroin stupor that spring and said, "River, you're going to kill yourself," Phoenix just looked at him, the friend says, "like ~Yeah, so?'"

Last fall Phoenix filmed Dark Blood in an area in Utah reputed to be a magnet for alien visitations, which fascinated him (his latest karmic catchphrase was "Thanks be to UFO Godmother"). He told friends he'd been levitated over his bed, and he would sometimes lie on his patio and shout to the heavens, "Take me, I'm ready! What else is out there?"

But Phoenix was clean and focused in Utah, as he had been that summer. He was in love with Samantha Mathis, whom he'd puppyishly pursued during The Thing Called Love, telling, friends "his head was going to pop off if he didn't get to hold her hand." And he had finally started sifting through his anger, spelunking into his own fault lines. His friends agree that he was strong enough to reemerge; that he was not ineluctably lost, like Jim Morrison or John Belushi. But for the accident of October 31, Phoenix would probably have made it through.

But back in Los Angeles for three days in late October, depressed by the pain of his role as a lonely desert dweller in Dark Blood and by continual on-set fighting, he began with drugs again. He'd always hated Los Angeles. Previously he'd been a public, celebratory user; now he used privately at the Hotel Nikko. Rain and Joaquin had flown out to Los Angeles that final day because Joaquin had an audition for the role of River's brother in Safe Passage. River was excited about the chance to play, at last, a normal young man, who heals his father's blindness. But Rain and Joaquin also sensed that River felt very alone.

ln his last two movies Phoenix had darkened his hair to look older, and it's poignant that River, fed up with his pretty, face, went unrecognized by Johnny Depp that night at Depp's club, the Viper Room. Phoenix looked thin and strung-out in black jeans and Converse sneakers; he looked, finally, anonymous. It was a terrible death, of course--the stricken 911 call from Joaquin; River's eight-minute seizure, his head jerking and his knuckles banging the sidewalk--and yet it was a mistake of youth. He seemed such an old soul it was easy to forget he was only twenty-three.

In Utah, Phoenix would lie on his patio and shout to the heavens, "Take me, I'm ready! What else is out there?"

A FEW NIGHTS after Phoenix died, his family and several close friends like Bukowski and Solgot sat around the table in Micanopy, drinking Gentleman Jack whiskey, John's favorite brand, and remembering River. They got in an uproar of laughter, and a tumbler that came with the whiskey abruptly shattered. Later, when Solgot was at the sink, three more of the tumblers broke simultaneously in the dish rack. "River's a joker," she says.

In two separate memorial services, both held outside on still days, when everyone joined hands to think of Phoenix, the wind suddenly whipped up. He has often been in his friends' dreams, assuring them he is fine, though he seems quiet and sometimes melancholy. "I am still connected to his energy," Heart Phoenix says. "When the wind blows I see River, when the sun shines I see River, when I look in someone's eyes and make a connection I see River. To have death transformed into another way to look at life is his huge gift."

But for others the question of how to remember lingers. In London, Dermot Mulroney ran in to one of River's drug friends, a screenwriter, and slammed him against a wall. "This is how I feel about River's death," Mulroney said. "How do you feel?" The friend said he was clean--now.

Certain scenes of Phoenix's movies are freshly piercing: when Phoenix stops clowning and admits in Little Nikita that "whenever people tell me to be myself I don't know what to do ... I don't know what myself is"; when he gleefully snorts cocaine in Idaho when Keanu Reeves reflects on their three years hustling and says, "What I'm getting at, Mike, is that we're still alive." And in the just-released Silent Tongue, the sequence when the spirit of Phoenix's dead Kiowa Indian wife goads him to commit suicide. In rehearsal, director Sam Shepard roped Phoenix and Sheila Tousey with twine to cement the inescapability of their joint doom, and they play the scene hauntingly; when Phoenix maneuvers the mouth of the rifle under his chin, it's almost impossible to watch. But our wince would not be what Phoenix desired as his legacy.

Nor would he have wanted the other extreme. When 250 people gathered for the family's memorial service under a huge live oak tree at the base of the Phoenix property, the tenor of many of the remarks from the Klingons was, as Suzanne Solgot puts it, "River's in heaven, blah blah blah, it was his time, blah blah blah." "You would have thought he was ninety and had died in his sleep," says Martha Plimpton. "The people who were saying this felt tremendous guilt that they had contributed to his death."

After hearing yet another speaker say, "River needed to go, and he's free now," Bradley Gregg, who'd played Phoenix's elder brother in Stand by Me and who became like an actual brother to him, leaped to his feet and shouted, "River didn't have to die to be free!" Not everyone heard, so he shouted again, "River didn't have to die to be free!" Gregg's wife, Dawn, added a clarion, "Wake up, wake up!" her tears soaking the baby she held in her arms.

The text on this page © 1994 Hearst Corporation

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