My Own Private River Phoenix: How I Was Introduced to His Cinematic Presence

On what would have been River Phoenix's 51st birthday, a personal account of how the late actor made an undeniable impression in the movies.

River Phoenix - My Own Private Idaho

With a hypnotic gaze, a raspy voice and the capability to effortlessly inhabit the soul of a character, the late actor, musician and activist River Phoenix was a once-in-a-generation talent. Today, he would have turned 51 years old.

While his posthumous age can be an irrelevant number to warrant a retrospective of one of the finest ever to grace the movies — especially one year after many took the opportunity to celebrate him for his 50th birthday — any day can be an opportunity to reflect upon someone with only 14 film credits who made an undeniable impact on the cinematic art form.

A life cut far too short, Phoenix’s physical manifestation with us ended in the early hours of Halloween in 1993 outside the Los Angeles nightclub The Viper Room, then-owned by actor Johnny Depp. Present at the time was his girlfriend and “The Thing Called Love” co-star Samantha Mathis, his sister Rain and his future Oscar-winning brother Joaquin Phoenix, who celebrated his birthday just three days prior. As someone who has also lost a brother, without any “how-to-guide” on how to deal with such tragedy, nothing ever really feels like it falls under an umbrella of normalcy.

As a 9-year-old, my affection for Phoenix was well known within my family, considering that they watched me consume films like Phil Alden Robinson’s “Sneakers” (1992) on repeat and saw his name many times in my multiple notebooks, where I would jot down dream ensembles for made-up movie titles with no premise. Unfortunately, his loss was in the middle of a two-year period in the 1990s where many Hollywood icons were being taken abruptly, such as Raul Julia and Brandon Lee. Nevertheless, Phoenix’s death always stood out. Maybe because it was one of the earliest memories I have of an actor having to replace another due to his death — in this case, Christian Slater replacing him in Neil Jordan’s “Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles” (1994). More astutely, it’s the lingering questions in its aftermath about what could have been, or the even more philosophical conundrum: Why?

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River Phoenix as young Indiana Jones in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)

I set eyes on the Oregon-born actor for the first time in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989). He played a young Harrison Ford, who he previously worked with on Peter Weir’s “The Mosquito Coast” (1986). Although he was only in the first 10 minutes of the movie, his deluge of joviality and wit is the closest we ever came to seeing him as an action star. In the name of the golden crucifix owned by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, he rides horses, falls into a batch of snakes on a moving train, and gives himself a chin cut from a bullwhip before the story transitions to older Indy, decades later (by the way, did you know Phoenix as young Indy was supposed to be 13 in the script?).

Conceivably because Phoenix’s cool-guy swagger was on overload, at the tender age of 6 this future journalist couldn’t discern it all. Still, nonetheless, my cinematic veins craved more. But in the old days of VHS tapes and waiting for songs to play on the radio so you could record them, it was a Halley’s Comet-like interim before the next dose would arrive.

The next stop came with Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age classic, “Stand by Me” (1986), where Phoenix portrayed the brave and loyal Chris Chambers. Going through cinematic time, the young actor in a Boy Scout uniform in Spielberg’s franchise was now delivering complex elucidations on life. In one of the most significant scenes, his best friend Gordie, played by Wil Wheaton, listens to his account of being betrayed by his teacher after stealing milk money. “I just wish I could go someplace where nobody knows me,” Chris conveys in tears.

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River Phoenix as Chris Chambers in Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me” (1986)

As someone who was, at the time, growing up in a nontraditional household — feeling as if he was covered in a loveless invisibility cloak amidst his school days being even worse — it was overwhelming to gather and observe the articulation of my pain, even though I was unable to grasp it fully. Anything that had an essence or mention of him had to be found and administered from that moment on. I can recall the moment I accepted every failure of “Saved by the Bell: The College Years” (1993), in which Alex Tabor (played by Kiersten Warren) says she wants to be the next Meryl Streep and have an “Oscar, Emmy, Tony and a Luke Perry,” before changing her answer to River Phoenix by the end of the third episode.

Over the next three decades, I would explore and revisit his most poignant works, and not until my early 20s would I view his most essential efforts – Sidney Lumet’s “Running on Empty” (1988) and Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” (1991), the former which earned him his one career Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

As an avid Oscars admirer, I look upon his work as Danny Pope as a purely crafted and intensely reserved performance, stealing every film frame that features veterans Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch. It’s comforting that his spirit was incorporated into the almost 94-year-old organization’s history before he left this world. Photos from the 1989 ceremony are exceptionally touching to revisit as he walks the red carpet with a gleeful bliss, on the precipice of his own greatness. It should also be noted his supporting nom is one of the many instances of category fraud in Oscars history, as Naomi Foner’s Oscar-nominated original script focuses firmly on Danny’s story. Still a very worthy lead actor candidate, if they had been so inclined.

As we remember him today, we are reminded of his gifts to the medium. To call up one of Phoenix’s lyrics that he wrote at 17, which his brother Joaquin shared during his Oscar speech for “Joker” (2019): “Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow.”