Thursday, October 31, 2013

River Phoenix, Twenty Years On

by Pa Rock
Film Fan

River Phoenix was just barely twenty-three-years-old and had been acting a brief decade when he died twenty years ago tonight.  The young man was partying at a club owned by fellow actor Johnny Depp when he told a friend that he felt like he was overdosing.    As Phoenix and his entourage left the club, he collapsed on the Los Angeles sidewalk and died. 

The first time I saw young Mr. Phoenix on the big screen was while watching The Mosquito Coast, a 1986 film based on a novel by Paul Theroux  -  a book that I had read a few years before and that had ginned up my interest in seeing the movie.  Phoenix, who would have been fifteen or sixteen during the filming, played the son of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, a couple who had packed up the kids and fled to Central America where they planned to manufacture ice in the jungle and thrive in an survivalist lifestyle.

Over the next couple of years River Phoenix received critical acclaim for his performances in Stand by Me(1986) and Running on Empty (1988), but his most brilliant on-screen performance was as a young, narcoleptic street hustler in Gus Van Sant’s 1991 masterpiece, My Own Private Idaho.   In that film Phoenix (Mike) and Keanu Reeves (Scott) were young male prostitutes working the streets of Portland, Oregon.    Mike had been abandoned (or taken from) his family at a very young age.  He was gay, usually dealt with male clients, and was in love with Scott.    Scott, on the other hand, was straight, but living an outlandish lifestyle primarily to embarrass his rich and politically powerful father.   Together the two young men teamed up on a road trip to Idaho and ultimately Italy in search of the Mike’s mother.

My Own Private Idaho is an exceptional movie, one that showcases the acting range and abilities of both River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.  I saw it as a new release, and again recently on a movie channel.  It has held up very well.

River Phoenix was ultimately destroyed by his own private demons, but in his short life he did some wonderful work.  It would have been great if he could have hung around for a few more decades and left an even bigger imprint on the American cultural landscape, but what he did accomplish in just a few brief years was significant.  He made his mark and is still remembered as an accomplished actor – but sadly, one who exited the stage too soon.

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