On October 31, 1993, Hollywood got robbed big. This October marks 20 years since River Phoenix – an actor who defined the 90s with his camera-ready angst and mysterious past – collapsed on the sidewalk outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room and OD’d. While his death may have boosted his headline ratings, it often eclipses his best bits. We chart River’s impact on the 90s and beyond.
Child Of God
Before Hollywood, River’s family were part of the now infamous Christian cult "The Children of God" – both a quaint throwback to the hippy religiosity of the 60s and a perverse child prostitution ring. In an interview with Details magazine in 91, River claims he lost his virginity aged four, “But I’ve blocked it out…I didn’t want those body parts that were in my face to make me perverse when I was older”. The cult was hugely secretive and River’s decision to expose them may have angered their powerful – not to mention wealthy – leaders. Many still speculate today whether River’s violation of The Children’s secrecy cost him his life.
"Born To Be a Giver"
Once free of the cult, River and his family moved to Venezuela, where he and his sister Rain sang on street corners for money. Later, he traded in street corners for world tours. After befriending Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, he joined The Chilies on their ‘Mother’s Milk’ tour, singing back-up and even getting himself name-checked later on "Give It Away" – “There’s a river born to be a giver”. By 1993 he was bored of Hollywood and often spoke of packing it in to take on music full-time. He had a band, Aleka’s Attic, with his sister and Flea – but the group never hit the big time and disbanded upon River’s death. Rain has since tried to release an album of their material as a charity release but came up against other band members who wanted to use the album as a money-spinner.
Running On Empty
In 1989, River became one of the youngest stars to snag an Academy Awards nomination for Running On Empty. He may not have won, but the accolade cemented his film-star status and hinted at a strong career to follow. Despite the achievement, River was famously low-key about awards and was uncomfortable with the hype. His death cut short several movie projects including Gus Van Sant’s plans to make Milk with River – the film finally saw its release in 2008 starring James Franco. River never got to make that career-defining film. He came close with Idaho and Stand By Me, but at such a young age it’s hard not to imagine the star he was only just becoming.
River 4 Keanu
Was there anything more 90s than the bromance between River and Keanu? Today it seems an unlikely pairing – perhaps because Keanu’s career was propelled into the mainstream, while River’s is rooted in the past of his indie start-ups. The pair were so close they translated it into a daring tale of forbidden love between two gay street hustlers in My Own Private Idaho. Forget about Brokeback Mountain, Gus Van Sant’s close-to-the-bone cult classic is hard to beat. Reportedly, it took months for Keanu to persuade River to do Idaho, yet once filming started River immersed himself, with some claiming he took it too far in his quest to emulate the life of a rent-boy, ushering in a fatal heroin addiction. River wrote in the infamous campfire scene, telling Gus Van Sant that he wanted the relationship between Mike and Scott to be more emphatic.
Known as "The Vegan James Dean", River was big on animal rights and the preservation of the rainforest. In many ways he was a trailblazer for the surge in activism amongst 90s stars. Aleka’s Attic even performed at PETA’s first “Rock Against Fur” in 1989, with River winning their Humanitarian of the Year award in 1992.
River’s style was classic 90s and along with Kurt Cobain he made plaid a fashion staple for all 90s kids. His style is still remembered today; in 2010 GQ voted him one of the 50 "Most Stylish Men of the Past Half Century". Eat your heart out Jordan Catalano.
Stand By Me
It's hard to choose a favourite moment in Stephen King’s 1986 novella screen adaptation, Stand By Me – River going head to head with a young Kiefer Sutherland, the leeches, the bizarre pie-eating contest…but ultimately, it’s this music video with River and the rest of the cast dancing along with Ben E. King to the theme song that we love most.
After 20 years, River’s final film Dark Blood premiered earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival after his death cut short the final weeks of filming. At one point it was rumoured that River’s brother, Joaquin, would be dubbing River’s voice for the missing scenes, but now none of the Phoenix family are supportive of the film’s release. Despite missing a quarter of its necessary scenes – with footage rumoured to have been stolen from the studio archives – the film was well received. Jonathon Pryce, who co-starred with River, said of his short time working with him that he was a “young head on old shoulders”.
"I would rather quit while I was ahead. There's no need in overstaying your welcome".
As enigmatic in death as he ever was alive, River continues to captivate new generations as the nomadic rent-boy, the war-crimes runaway and the no-hoper of the class. In the end, these roles he chose during his short career have reflected his own restlessness, a wanderer on and off screen.
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