Phoenix's clean-living image dies with him

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The Independent Online
VICTOR Hernandez vividly remembers River Phoenix coming into the video shop where he works on Sunset Boulevard. He almost confused the young star with one of those trolley- pushing, gaunt-featured homeless men who wander like unhappy ghosts through the shadows of West Hollywood. 'He was so scruffy, you see. It was as if he was hiding.'

It is now a week since the 23-year-old actor died after collapsing in convulsions in the early hours, a few yards from Mr Hernandez's shop. He writhed on the ground unnoticed by the trendy young passers-by who flocked in Hallowe'en costumes around the entrance of the Viper Room club, owned by movie actor Johnny Depp. Only a handful of people knew the dimensions of the tragedy they were witnessing: the death of one of Hollywood's hottest young talents, an American pin-up with a glorious future before him.

Hollywood has been trying ever since to come to terms with the possibility that drugs were to blame. He is hardly the first brilliant performer whose excesses may have sent him to an early grave. The list - Elvis Presley, Brian Jones, John Belushi, Jim Morrison - is long.

Yet their deaths were usually the result of long, much- publicised, dissipations. Wasn't River Phoenix supposed to be that earnest soul who scolded a friend for drinking a Diet Coke (he preferred carrot juice), or who lectured an interviewer on how 'Acid is not an answer'? Wasn't he the son of Sixties bohemians, a solemn-faced vegan who refused even to wear leather? As his obituaries pointed out, he was 'clean-living' - an upright young man, despite the pressures of being a child star, and an Oscar nominee while he was still in his teens.

Or was he? Evidence is mounting that Phoenix was living a double life. He was, by his own admission, a chameleon, who disliked the limelight and yet sought it out, a moody figure who lied to journalists rather than reveal his complex inner self. One industry insider told the Washington Post that Phoenix had been seen using drugs during the shooting of several recent films. And an anonymous acquaintance claimed to have seen a drug-dazed Phoenix at this year's USA Film Festival in Dallas: 'You couldn't even talk to him, he was so stoned.' Last night, Hard Copy, a US tabloid TV show, claimed to have hospital documents suggesting he took a mixture of cocaine, valium and heroin.

Questions about drugs and River Phoenix elicit an irritable response from the Los Angeles County Coroner's office. Its spokesman stressed the preliminary autopsy was 'inconclusive', and that nothing more will be known until toxicology tests are completed (possibly later this week). Yet this is not altogether true. The autopsy, he concedes, had ruled out several causes of death. It has established that Phoenix did not die from a heart attack or a stroke. The range of other possibilities seems limited.

Whatever the truth, Phoenix's death has served as a reminder that there is still a dark side to Hollywood. While movie executives may boast of their ultra-healthy, Perrier-quaffing, iron-pumping lifestyles, old drug habits die hard, and hypocrisy is immortal. 'There are still plenty of illegal substances around Hollywood. You just have to know where to find them,' said one film-maker.

River Phoenix's sudden death has also drawn attention to an alarming change in buying patterns of those who haunt LA clubland. Narcotics detectives say other drugs are joining cocaine as fashionable choices, especially heroin, methamphetamine, and GHB - a coma- inducing designer drug that has yet to be listed as a controlled drug in the US.

The Drug Enforcement Administration says there is a reason for the sharp increase in the use of heroin, especially among the white middle-class young. While their elders remember the toll exacted by the drug when it swept through the music industry 25 years ago, Phoenix's fans, in their early twenties or younger, know little about it. Street heroin is also much purer than it used to be, allowing users to snort it, rather than using a syringe.

Nor is a needle necessary to get high on methamphetamine, a drug which the DEA says is 'dramatically increasing' on the West Coast. 'It used to be a blue-collar drug manufactured by Hell's Angels and used by white trash. But it is increasingly getting into the middle classes. In some areas it is even taking over from cocaine,' said a DEA spokesman. Scores of makeshift amphetamine labs have been found throughout California, mostly Mexican-run rural operations. It is easy to make and produces immense profits - an estimated dollars 45,000 for every 24-hour batch.

Traffickers of heroin (frequently Colombian cocaine cartels) and methamphetamine face the prospect of at least 10 years in prison if they are caught. This is not the case with GHB - a steroid otherwise known as gamma hydroxybutyric acid or, by those who speak in awed tones of its effects, 'grievous bodily harm'. Its use is classed only as a misdemeanour, likely only to result in probation - despite the fact that it can lead to seizures or even a coma.

Whatever killed River Phoenix does not matter to the scores of fans who last week gathered at a makeshift shrine on the spot where their idol collapsed. For them, his death - like that of James Dean in 1955 - has added to his mystique.

'My friends and I were all fans of his,' said Didi Murray, a 17-year-old high school student, as she stared unhappily down at the pile of flowers outside the Viper Room's front door. 'It was just so sad. When this sort of thing happens it makes you think: anyone could die in this way.' And she's right. Anyone could - especially in the secret world of Hollywood's fashionable young celebrities, who are driven by boredom or the pressures of success to start playing with narcotics.

Leader, page 22

Real Life, page 25

(Photograph omitted)