River Phoenix, my best actor

Joaquin Phoenix made me cry last night while accepting the Oscar for Best Actor. “Run to the rescue with love—and peace will follow,” he said, quoting lyrics written by his late brother, the actor

River Phoenix. A lot of people don’t know that River was a talented musician as well as an Oscar-nominated actor. He fronted the band Aleka’s Attic, and in many ways, music was his greatest passion.

I have never been one to idolize celebrities, with one massive exception, and that is River Phoenix. Since I was young, the story of River—his childhood in Venezuela, his meteoric rise as an actor, his passion for music, his empathy and sensitivity and kindness and vulnerability, and yes, his tragic end—has both haunted and inspired me. I’m staying with family now, but when I lived alone my apartment was decorated with his photos. My phone case has his face on it—intentional, as he serves as a constant reminder to both do good in this world and create art. His films are the ones I watch over and over. His songs are my lullabies.

He was a phenomenally talented actor. His breakout role as a sensitive and troubled young boy in Stand By Me earned him legions of teenage fans and a place in the pantheon of 1980s Hollywood. Yet he was a pinup boy who loathed celebrity and its attendant vices, choosing instead to live peacefully in the swampy quiet of Gainesville, Florida.  His tender, heartbreaking portrayal of a teenage rent boy in My Own Private Idaho remains the single best film performance not nominated for an Academy Award. He did receive an Oscar nomination for Running on Empty—though he eschewed awards in general, not putting much stock in the politics of Oscar campaigning or the inherent silliness of judging art against art.

Last night I tweeted that River would be proud of Joaquin. I don’t doubt he would. I also suspect, though, that River would have said something along the lines of “remember this doesn’t mean anything” to him—that it’s about the art and the stories and the message more than a golden statue or box office revenue. (Joaquin knows that, too, I reckon; I see a lot of River in him.)

In this way, as in so many ways, River was a remarkable human being—defying the stereotype of your vapid matinee idol. He was defined by decency and compassion. Most people know of how River Phoenix died, but it’s how he lived that is truly remarkable. He was a vegan before it was cool and before the media even knew what that word was (a magazine once called him an “ultravegetarian.”) He was an environmentalist before environmentalism went mainstream, buying up large swathes of rain forest in order to protect them. He was an early champion of gay rights at a time when that was an issue most in Hollywood didn’t want to touch.

It’s this, I think, that has always drawn me to River. When he died in 1993, I was only seven years old—too young to really understand who he was or appreciate the legacy he left behind. It was only as I became a teenager that I began to feel a connection with him. Watching old clips of him, reading old interviews, and listening to his songs made me feel as though we were kindred spirits. He was funny, at times even goofy, but below the surface was a visceral pain—deep and abiding and torturous. It was a pain I understood.

River Phoenix felt. I don’t mean he felt in the sentimental, manufactured way that, say, Sarah McLachlan singing about homeless dogs makes you feel for a moment and then move on with whatever it was you are doing. I mean he felt the pain he experienced, and the pain others experienced—whether humans or animals—in his bones. In the seminal biography of River, Last Night at the Viper Room, Gavin Edwards relays a story about how upon his girlfriend ordering meat, River ran out of the restaurant in tears. It’s a level of empathy and love—in this case for the earth, for the animals—that few of us can ever hope to understand, let alone feel.

I always feel a little weird talking about River, because when I talk about him I do it as though I knew him, though of course I never even met him. But over the past 20 or so years, as I’ve grown up, I feel like I have gotten to know River—or at least, the parts of himself he shared with the public. I don’t feel that way about any other celebrity or historical figure. River is singular in that regard—the only icon to breech the steel fortress of cynicism I have built against the cult of fame. He doesn’t feel like a movie star to me—though he undeniably was—but more like an old friend whom I miss dearly.

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

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