THE DEATH of River Phoenix at the age of 23 makes him the first victim of the so-called 'Brat Pack' of American actors. The precise cause of his death is yet to be disclosed; he apparently collapsed after leaving a West Hollywood night-club where friends reported he had been 'acting strangely'. In his movies, Phoenix acted powerfully enough to be regarded as someone with a real future. He was about to play the key role of the Interviewer in the film version of Anne Rice's novel Interview with the Vampire, opposite Tom Cruise, the most successful actor of the Brat Pack generation. But when Phoenix first came to our notice, interviewers inevitably asked about his name. The answer was as weird as the name itself.
His parents, John and Arlyn, named him after the River of Life in Hermann Hesse's acid-head classic Siddhartha (1922). Phoenix's brothers and sisters were similarly eco-christened: Rain, Leaf, Liberty and Summer. They spent their childhoods in Venezuela, where their parents were missionaries for the Children of God. John was the organisation's Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean and was said by one profile-writer to be 'dreamier, less grounded, and his past includes juvenile homes and a drinking problem'. His eyes had a 'slight messianic glitter'. It was River's mother Arlyn, a Bronx Jew, who kept the family on terra firma, though River did busk in the streets of Venezuela to earn the clan some extra money.
The Phoenixs abandoned the Children of God when they saw a magazine article about the cult's founder, David Berg: a photograph showed him bejewelled in a black robe surrounded by pretty girls - the usual story. The family returned to the United States, settled in Florida and decided on a totally new course in life: the children would become actors and the parents would be their managers. As a symbol of their rising from the ashes, they changed their name to Phoenix (their original name is unknown), renounced all meat and dairy foods and prayed very hard. Within five years River was a movie star.
This unusual background may partially account for his strong performance as Harrison Ford's level- headed son in the Mosquito Coast (1986), Peter Weir's screen version of Paul Theroux's novel set in central America where Ford decides to be a saviour to the Indians, providing them with a machine for making ice. Encounters with missionaries, natural disasters and the death of his clearly insane father put an end to this Utopian (and Conradian) dream and at the end River Phoenix, who narrates the story, is left going down-river, suddenly the head of the family. Phoenix had lived this life for real, which is possibly why Harrison Ford seemed so actorly beside him.
The Mosquito Coast was not a commercial success. However, his other film of 1986, Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner from a Stephen King story, rapidly became a cult with young audiences and Phoenix's portrayal of a confused and abused teenager was widely praised for its honesty and lack of pretension. The movie is arguably one of the cinema's finest explorations of childhood.
After Stand By Me, Phoenix was never off the screen. He was an underprivileged student in One Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988); the tormented son of Russian spies in Little Nikita (1988); and the son of underground fugitives who bombed a napalm factory in Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty (1988), a performance which earned Phoenix a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. And then, having played Harrison Ford's son in the Mosquito Coast, Steven Spielberg cast him as the young Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), a mega-blockbuster that did not, however, catapult Phoenix into the front rank, possibly because if you blinked you may have missed him.
His subsequent choices were commendably imaginative if not commercially sensible - Lawrence Kasdan's flaky comedy I Love You to Death (1990), and Dogfight (1991), in which he played a marine on leave from Vietnam who has a date with an overweight would-be folksinger. The latter barely secured a theatrical release.
Phoenix next played the gay hustler, narcoleptic and product of incest in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991), a cult road movie in which he teams up with Keanu Reeves to find his long-lost mother. It was a sleazy role, to which Phoenix brought his trademark honesty and simplicity. Sneakers (1992) was more frivolous, a computer-age conspiracy thriller in which he starred opposite the craggy Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier, his co-star in Running on Empty.
Perhaps he was typecast as a troubled young man coming of age and he certainly drew strength from his own tribal family background and religious belief. 'I am confused,' he said. 'I go back and forth about success and wealth and want to take the Devil's bribe and use it for God.' And, whilst other actors of his generation tried too hard, fell into mannerism, or relied too heavily on matinee idol looks, Phoenix was a natural, who seemed self-assured and relaxed before the camera. Sadly, this guitar-playing, songwriting actor, who also spoke of founding 'a home for abused kids, the homeless, the psychotics' never realised his full potential.Reuse content