River Phoenix: The boy, the man and his movies

River Jude Phoenix was born on August 23 1970, in Madras, Oregon; his name taken from the book Siddhartha. His parents, John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, worked as farm labourers and only stayed in each town for a short while, their lifestyle free from the trappings of capitalism. River was their first-born child and would become an award-winning actor, idol, musician and activist, with his younger brothers and sisters eventually following in his footsteps. He was an incredible talent, a beautiful boy and man, a passionate activist and an enigma.

In 1972, Arlyn and John would join the notorious cult, The Children of God, with a two-year-old River in tow. River would spend his early childhood years within the cult before the family left in 1977. There is no doubt the cult left a significant mark on River’s life as the family spent years travelling around North and South America. In each new town, he would busk on street corners with his younger siblings to earn money while spreading the cult’s message – a message that disguised the child abuse and manipulation the cult represented.

River Phoenix

After leaving The Children of God, the family returned to the United States, where they would briefly live in Florida with Arlyn’s mother in a cramped house unsuitable for five children. During this time, River’s talent for music and performing led him to participate in local talent competitions and small gigs before the family moved to LA, where Arlyn would begin work as a secretary for NBC. In LA, River and his siblings were spotted by Iris Burton, a talent agent who would sign the whole family.

River’s Hollywood career would start with commercials for Mitsubishi and Ocean Spray before being signed by Paramount Pictures. In 1982, he starred in a CBS series, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, before starring in a TV movie, Celebrity, in 1984. But it was during the filming of another TV movie, Surviving: A Family in Crisis, that his first film role came into view, Explorers.

Early in production, the film’s director, Joe Dante, noted how River’s lack of formal education occasionally acted as a barrier on set, while his co-star Ethan Hawke later said that he had seen River endlessly practise his character’s walk in the parking lot, his behaviour somewhat obsessive. By all accounts, River’s drive was unstoppable but also uncertain and, at times, insecure; his worldview insular compared to his school-educated co-stars, but he was also brutally honest and passionate about his core beliefs. River would later say of his young co-stars, “We got along exceptionally” “It’s like having foster brothers that you just move in with for a while and get to know”(Last Night at the Viper Room – Gavin Edwards).


Explorer’s mix of pop culture and science fiction would flop at the box office, with its release overshadowed by Back to the Future and Live Aid. However, Explorers would also open the door to River’s breakout role in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me.

Based on the Stephen King novella ‘The Body,’ Stand by Me is now regarded as one of the greatest American coming-of-age films ever made, and that label is primarily due to Reiner’s sublime cast. In an interview with Simon Bland for The Guardian, Reiner said, “Wil had this sensitivity and intelligence. Jerry O’Connell (who played Vern) had never acted before apart from a commercial. The only one with real experience was Corey Feldman (Teddy). I’d never met a 12-year-old with that kind of rage inside of him, but in learning about his background and that his parents had split up and there wasn’t a lot of closeness there, I could see where it was coming from. River (Chris) was like a young James Dean. There was so much soul there. He had this great wisdom for a guy that age.  

Stand By Me is a love letter to childhood freedom, friendship and adventure. Yet it is also a layered and complex exploration of grief, loss and change as the child slowly morphs into the teenager. River turned fifteen on the set of Stand by Me, and in his character, Chris Chambers, River found something that spoke to his own coming-of-age journey. With Chris Chambers, River would offer us a sensitive, strong and scared boy full of fearless pride and deep-seated vulnerability. 

Stand by Me struggled to make it to many cinema screens in the US on its original release of August 8 1986, but following critical acclaim, it soon picked up more screenings, and by August 16, it was wowing audiences across the US. Stand By Me would eventually earn $52,287,414 based on an $8 million budget while catapulting its young stars River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell to global fame.


River would follow Stand By Me with the Ford, and Mirram led The Mosquito Coast, directed by Peter Weir. River had not been Weir’s first choice; Wil Wheaton had, but when Weir learnt of River’s family history, the parallels between Charlie Fox and the young actor couldn’t be ignored. Weir later commented, “He [River] was obviously going to be a movie star.” On the hot jungle set of The Mosquito Coast, River would grow close to Harrison Ford and would also meet his soon-to-be girlfriend, Martha Plimpton. However, Weir’s film opened to mixed reviews and quickly lost money at the box office, becoming one of the only Ford movies to flop.

Next up for River was the lead role in the teen coming-of-age comedy A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), directed by William Richert. Despite hopes of a Risky Business-like success, Jimmy Reardon quickly hit distribution problems and suffered studio interference during its editing. As a result, what should have been a layered comedic discussion on sex, art, class and parental influence, ended up a lacklustre teen sex comedy. That doesn’t mean Jimmy Reardon was a lousy movie. But for River and Richert, it was a huge disappointment and a lesson in studio interference that would be partially corrected with a director’s cut in 2018. A few months later, River would also star in the box office flop Little Nikita alongside the legendary Sidney Poitier.

However, 1988 would end on a high with Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, a film that would earn the 18-year-old River a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination. In Running on Empty, River would clearly draw from his experiences growing up in different locations with the story of a family on the run. Here River’s nuanced performance alongside Judd Hirsh, Martha Plimpton, and Christine Lahti would mark his transition from a teenage star to an adult actor under Lumet’s legendary instruction.

A NIGHT IN THE LIFE OF JIMMY REARDON, River Phoenix, Ann Magnuson, 1988

River never won that Golden Globe or Academy Award and would never receive another nomination from either body in his lifetime. But he would go on to win the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at Venice Film Festival, Best Male Lead at the Spirit Awards and Best Actor at the National Film Critic Awards for Gus Van Sant’s queer indie movie My Own Private Idaho in 1991. But before the success of Idaho, three films would highlight River’s embrace of diverse new roles. In 1989 River would embody a young Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade marking his arrival as an all-action hero. River didn’t attempt to copy Ford’s older version of the character; instead, he created his own interpretation of a young Indy. It is, therefore, sad that despite the beauty and energy of River’s brief performance, we would never get to see more of his young Indiana Jones in action.

River would also stretch his comedy legs in I Love You to Death alongside Kevin Kline and Tracey Ullman, a movie that proved marriage could indeed be murder. Meanwhile, Dogfight would see River play a young marine the night before he arrived in Vietnam. 

But everything was about to change as River took on the role of a young street hustler called Mike in My Own Private Idaho, a film that would reunite him with his I Love You to Death co-star Keanu Reeves. Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece would offer us a nuanced and visually stunning portrait of isolation, unrequited love and loss as it joyously played with Shakespeare’s Henry IV while celebrating the road trip drama and a newly emerging confidence in queer storytelling. 


For River and Keanu, Idaho was a considerable risk and an exciting opportunity. River would spend several nights on Portland’s streets, talking with the rent boys who earned their living in the shadows, all the time sculpting his character. There are many stand-out scenes in Idaho, but the centrepiece is a campfire sequence where Mike (Phoenix) attempts to voice his love for Scott (Reeves). River would write his characters heartbreaking words and insist the scene was filmed on the final day of shooting. He later said, “I am so glad I wrote that line: I love you, and you don’t have to pay me.” That one line would light a spark in queer cinema, and River’s confidence would help create a symphony of new LGBTQ+ films.

Following Idaho, River would work with Robert Redford, and Sidney Poitier in the underrated thriller Sneakers (1992), Peter Bogdanovich in The Thing Called Love (1993) and Richard Harris in the horror-western Silent Tongue. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings were Neil Jorden’s Interview with a Vampire and a plan to reunite with Gus Van Sant for his film about Harvey Milk.

But while working on the film Dark Blood with Jonathan Pryce, River would suddenly leave our world. On October 31, 1993, River Phoenix was pronounced dead. He was just 23 years old. River’s life ended outside the Viper Club in Los Angeles with Joaquin, Rain, and Samantha at his side. While music continued to play in the club, River’s body shut down on the cold hard pavement due to a mixture of prescription drugs, cocaine and morphine.

Like many actors before and after him, River notoriously lost himself in his roles, his method approach similar to Montgomery Clift and James Dean. When looking back on his work in Dogfight, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski said to Esquire in 1994, “Phoenix invited the demons of the role into himself.” Considering these comments, it is possible that River’s role as Mike in Idaho opened doors that couldn’t be closed. Equally, River’s friendship with the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante may have led to his harder drug use. Or maybe his co-star in Explorers, Ethan Hawke, got it right when he said, “He was the brightest light, and this industry chewed him up.” River left behind an enviable body of work comprising fourteen films, various television shows, and music videos. He paved the way for a whole new generation of actors, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Heath Ledger and Jared Leto. He was a pioneer, an activist, and one of the finest actors of his generation, a light that burnt oh so bright, yet far too fast.

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