Twenty years ago in the early hours of October 31, River Phoenix, the brooding, talented actor who seemed more interested in creating great art than scoring a box office blockbuster, died at the age of 23. When I heard the news about his death in 1993, I was angry, shocked, and sad, although I never knew him.
For me, and I suspect many others, Phoenix, who died from a drug overdose outside the Viper Room in West Hollywood, stood for something. He was one of those figures — like Kurt Cobain, who died only a few months later in April 1994 at the age of 27 — who was a righteous rebel for a generation.
Phoenix had movie star good looks and a strong screen presence. He first showed up on TV in the early 1980s and his first movie was 1985's Explorers, in which he played a nerdy genius and best friend to a young Ethan Hawke.
But the film that got him noticed was 1986's Stand By Me, in which he was a tough, stand-up kid who was also quite vulnerable. Phoenix's performance was so nuanced and spot on that it was hard to believe so much talent resided in one teenager.
From there, Phoenix made such films as the little known yet superb The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford, A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, Little Nikita with Sidney Poitier and Running on Empty. His sensitive performance in that last film earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
In addition to other films, such as playing a young Indiana Jones/Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Phoenix also starred in director Gus Van Sant's masterpiece My Own Private Idaho with Keanu Reeves.
But the actor never made a Titanic like Leonardo DiCaprio, and his film choices were not based on making him a world-famous movie star.
That's exactly what endeared Phoenix to Generation X, a generation of so-called slackers and “Do It Yourself” types during the late 1980s and early 1990s when independent film and music scenes were alive, combative, and real. He was skeptical of celebrity and mainstream society, and he appeared to be searching for something with meaning and substance.
After all, Phoenix played a gay hustler in My Own Private Idaho in 1991, during the AIDS crisis, when being gay was most definitely not cool or accepted like it is today. And that character was not only searching for his mother, but for his own identity and place in the world — just like many of us in our twenties.
It was the perfect movie for those anxious times when teenagers and twenty-somethings were entering into a world of AIDS, high unemployment, the first Persian Gulf War, eight years of President Ronald Reagan and then four years of President George H.W. Bush, the Rodney King beating, crack cocaine, and drive-by gang shootings, and we were trying to figure out how to navigate all that stuff, make our own marks in the world, and still be true to ourselves.
My Own Private Idaho remains relevant for anyone who's confused and looking for answers.
The beauty about Phoenix was that his performances and film choices confirmed to me that being thoughtful, sensitive, and vulnerable was perfectly legitimate, even preferred to the macho mindlessness that society and pop culture tend to champion.
And here was a guy who was succeeding in his career and with his art by not being a muscle-bound movie star who stars in an over-the-top action thriller. Even when he did co-star in the political thriller Sneakers with Robert Redford, he was again playing a geek.
Whatever personal problems Phoenix may have had, he did stand for artistic integrity, which the new book about Phoenix, Last Night at the Viper Room, goes into. Those kinds of artists are rare, and what makes for a great artist. That integrity was on full display in every one of his films.
Which may be why Brad Pitt said soon after Phoenix's death, “I think he was the best. Is. Was. Is the best of the young [actors in Hollywood]. I'm not just saying that now — I said that before he died. He had something I don't understand.”
This Halloween, rather than watch a horror movie, check out River Phoenix's films.
Patrick Range McDonald is a contributing writer to L.A. Weekly. Email him, or follow him on Twitter at @PRMcDonald.
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