Young actor’s death at twenty-three is a great loss of talent
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
River Phoenix was a rising young star in Hollywood. He made several notable films, including the 1988 film Running on Empty—for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Tragically, on October 31, 1993, Phoenix died of an accidental drug overdose outside The Viper Room (then owned by actor Johnny Depp) on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. His death was mourned by fans, and film critics—revealing the loss of a great actor who had not realized his full potential. This is a look back at some of Phoenix’s finest films.
Stand by Me (1986)
This was Phoenix’s breakthrough role. He played the tough cigarette-smoking, foul-mouthed kid named Chris Chambers in this coming-of-age film. The story focuses on childhood friends who go on an adventure to find the dead body of a missing boy. The movie was based on the 1982 Stephen King novel, The Body. The movie was directed by Rob Reiner and co-starred Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, John Cusack, and Jerry O’Connell (in his first film).
Also, the film also starred Kiefer Sutherland—who is very convincing as a gang leader and bully. Richard Dreyfuss has a cameo as the film’s narrator (playing Wil Wheaton’s character as an adult). The film was a box-office hit in the summer of 1986, alongside a hit soundtrack. Phoenix was only 16 when the movie was released. His strong performance gave audiences a hint of the young star’s acting potential.
Running on Empty (1988)
This is considered to be the movie that showcased Phoenix’s natural talents as an actor in serious drama. Phoenix plays Danny Pope, the son of fugitive parents who are constantly on the run from the FBI. The family is always on high alert, ready to flee when they sense the FBI is on their tail. The movie was directed by Sidney Lumet. Phoenix has good chemistry with his on-screen parents played by Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch.
In addition, several scenes show Phoenix’s dramatic range, including one emotional scene where he is pouring his heart out to his on-screen girlfriend (Martha Plimpton). He discloses that he is not who he says he is due to his family always being on the run. Phoenix would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He would lose to Kevin Kline, who won the Oscar for the film A Fish Called Wanda.
This love story had little publicity when it was released in theatres in September 1991. Phoenix plays Eddie Birdlace, an 18-year-old Marine solider who is about to be sent to fight in the Vietnam War. He meets a young woman named Rose Fenny (Lili Taylor). She is not unattractive, but rather, plain looking. Rose is skeptical about Eddie’s intentions in wanting to get to know her better. However, she decides to go out with him, and a romance develops—as Eddie looks beyond Rose’s plain exterior.
He realizes that underneath, Rose is a unique and wonderful person. Phoenix and Taylor are cast perfectly together since their chemistry is very natural and not contrived. Notably, the film offers a good lesson: never judge a book by its cover!
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Phoenix received numerous accolades and praises for his portrayal of a narcoleptic street hustler named Mike. The movie also stars Keanu Reeves (Scott), and he plays Mike’s best friend. The film was directed by Gus Van Sant. Phoenix and Reeves do have a solid on-screen chemistry with each other. One scene that stands out shows Mike and Scott sitting during a bonfire. Mike feels lost as a person while searching for his mother, as he says: “If I had a normal family, and a good upbringing, then I would have been a well-adjusted person […] Didn’t have a dog or normal dad anyway, yeah. That’s alright. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I mean, I feel like I’m, you know, well-adjusted.”
Another notable scene shows Phoenix strutting confidently while grocery shopping. He pays for his groceries but declines any bags. His body language exudes so much confidence. Yet, when he carries his groceries with both hands, he drops them as he nears the exit door. Phoenix immersed himself in the role, as he had interviewed real street hustlers when researching the character. Many film critics have stated that this is the best performance he ever gave.
The Thing Called Love (1993)
This would be Phoenix’s last film released before his death. The movie focuses on Miranda Presley (Samantha Mathis), an ambitious singer who moves to Nashville—determined to be discovered. The film was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and stars Sandra Bullock and Dermot Mulroney. Phoenix plays James Wright, a talented singer trying to land his big break. Phoenix sings in the film, and he has a decent voice—he belts out the love ballad “Until Now,” and the catchy hit, “Blame It On Your Heart.”
The chemistry between Phoenix and Mathis (who was Phoenix’s girlfriend when he died) is apparent. Phoenix displays a quiet brooding intensity. His character acts like a prick initially when he tries to woo and charm Miranda. He awkwardly hits on her in the opening few minutes of the film after the two characters first meet. He is later seen mocking her singing during an audition. However, later in the movie, Phoenix’s character shows his charm and playfulness when he and Miranda begin dating. Unfortunately, the film’s legacy has darker undertones due to Phoenix’s death. Once again, it reveals what a significant loss this young actor’s death was.