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Saturday, October 31, 2009

A River Runs Through Me

A River runs through me....
and several others like me,
whose lives have been changed forever
simply by witnessing River Phoenix [August 23, 1970 - October 31, 1993] on screen.

The power of celluloid is such that it transcends boundaries
- geographical or physical -
by simply penetrating one's soul by means
of powerful images,
powerful depictions,
powerful narratives,
and, last but not the least,
powerful characterizations.

Perhaps I would not have been the person that I am
had it not been for River Phoenix.
He was more than an actor
who played his part well in movies.
He acquired cult status as an actor partly for the films
that he acted in, and also because of his dying young -
that's what most would say.
But to me, he was a magical presence....
I did not even know much about him when I saw him first...
most of his films were seen by me after his death,
and that too on the small screen, thanks to satellite television
and home videos.
But he still looms large in my sub-conscious...
is it him? Is it the parts played by him?
Is it the enigma, the rebellious streak in him that epitomized his legacy?
Well, it is difficult to pinpoint...

I cannot distance myself and come up with an objective appreciation.
I can only recall the madness that gripped me when I saw him play the narcoleptic hustler in "My Own Private Idaho" or in numerous other standout performances in ensemble films.
I read almost all piece of reading material that dealt with his life & times.
I caught almost all documentaries and tribute films made on him.
I searched for all his early films and tried to gather all the published photographs of him, including film-stills, from newspapers & tabloids.
At one point of time, I was obsessed with him.
The magic called River Phoenix overpowered me in totality.

Herein, I offer my tribute to the ever-young, ever-inspiring artiste by this humble write-up.
The assemblage of photographs has been made possible through several links on Google, and I intend no copyright infringement thereby. I am also attaching a list of River's films seen by me, along with a mini-biography of the late actor.

River Phoenix, born River Jude Bottom, was the eldest of five children whose itinerant parents were members of a radical Christian group called the Children of God (later known as The Family). His family lived in communes in Oregon, Texas, Puerto Rico and Venezuela before settling in Florida. River's birthplace was Metolius, near Madras, Oregon. Pursuing entertainment careers for their children, the parents eventually moved the family to Los Angeles, where River began getting television jobs in the early 1980s. Phoenix was soon labeled a promising young actor and his career took off with several movies of repute & acclaim. Although Phoenix's movie career was generating most of the income for his family, it has been stated by close friends and relatives that his true passion was music. Phoenix was a singer, song writer and an accomplished guitarist. Prior to securing an acting agent, Phoenix and his siblings had attempted to forge a career in music by playing cover songs on the streets of the Westwood district of LA. At seventeen, he formed his own band called Aleka's Attic. He was also well-known for his animal rights activism. Phoenix was renowned for using his power within the media to voice his beliefs and opinions on issues he felt important. For Earth Day 1990, Phoenix wrote an environmental awareness essay, targeted at his young fanbase, entitled "We Are the World" that was printed in Seventeen magazine. He and his band often played environmental benefits for well known charities.
The flip side of his fast rise to celebdom was his getting addicted to drugs. On this very day, that is October 31, in 1993, Phoenix collapsed from a drug overdose of heroin and cocaine (known as a speedball) outside the Viper Room, a Hollywood night club partially (owned by actor Johnny Depp until 2004).

His films that I have seen:
Explorers (1985)
Stand by Me (1986)
Little Nikita (1988)
Running on Empty (1988)
Indiana Jones & the last Crusade (1989)
I Love You to Death (1990)
Dogfight (1991)
Sneakers (1992)
My Own Private Idaho (1991/92)

5 Favorite River Phoenix Quotes:
"I wish sometimes I wasn't as conscientious as I am."
"Every day of my life since I finished My Own Private Idaho, at some point in the day, I find the conversation somehow goes back to that film, because it was just such a great experience. I just start getting all joyous and start babbling about it."
"In simplicity there is truth."
"When I was in first grade, everyone made fun of my name, of course. I think it's kind of a big name to hold up when you`re nine years old. It seemed goofy. I used to tell people I wanted to change the world and they used to think, 'This kid`s really weird.' "
"Everything is ironic to me. There are moments I find hysterical, but I'm probably the only one who would find that, except for a few people."

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mehul said...

It's great to read about Phoenix - and that too on this very day!
River Phoenix has had a truly awe-inspiring life. Much like James Dean, and even much like Heath Ledger, who died more recently, he was a genius who was ahead of his times in some ways, and otherwise he was somewhat a lost soul.
In such a small career span, he has left his mark in such exceptional films! Unf***ingbelievable!
His legend lives on!

Sharmee said...

River Phoenix was nominated for an Academy Award at the age of 18 for his performance in 'Running on Empty'. It is rare feat that he achieved cult stardom and also received the critics' favor.
His last film, 'Dark Blood' was never released as it was three weeks away from completion at the time of his death. One can see footage from the film in at least two documentaries.... but I wish someday River's fans also get to see the incomplete film as a special release.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences should also bestow some posthumous honor on Phoenix in the future.

sarfaraz said...

Those who are aware of the phenomenal star named River Phoenix know what a gem of an actor he was. His was a natural talent, exceptional & unique.

Abhijit Sengupta said...


Thank you for the post Anindo. Thank you for reminding us about a genius called Phoenix. Otherwise we too would have committed the offence of erasing him from our memory, making October 31 just another day on the calendar.

saurabh said...

I have to admit that I haven't seen most of River Pheoenix's movies. Well, they are not widely available as such.
But I got acquainted with River Phoenix because of the film called "My Own Private Idaho".
I think River Phoenix had become the character in a great way, he immersed his own self to a considerable extent in the character of the narcoleptic hustler. The film would always remain a classic depiction of unrequitted love, regardless of the fact that the love was between two males. The love was so much understated, that it became poignant through Phoenix's muted expressions. He was a lost soul.... both the character, and the actor. He represesnted a generation and an age, marked by distictive idiosyncratic behaviour and radical - sometimes larger-than-life - statements, made by the lives lived & eperienced.

sajan said...

River Phoenix died in his prime. He died young. Hence, even his darkest hours have been glorified in movie history. People like Brad Renfro and many others, who wasted themselves much more, haven't been so lucky.

tony said...

It is interesting to see how after so many years since his death River Phoenix gets talked about and written about. An important reason for this is the kind of films that he had acted in. Films like "My Own Private Idaho" and "Dogfight" and "Stand By Me" aren't just vintage yarns, they are still seen & discussed, and they are still as relevant, and are as refreshing to watch, as they were when they got made.

maheshmohanan said...

Phoenix was not only a powerhouse performer and a natural born talent, he also had been unabashedly vocal about a lot of things, including his very own controversial background.
In fact, River Phoenix had a reputation for talking too much.
In the press, the Phoenix family has distanced itself from Berg's flock, emphasizing their separation from the Children of God, the cult that had been at the centre of notoreity for many oddities. River Phoenix violated the cult's stricture of secrecy by discussing his early sexuality with reporters. Two years later, on All Hallow's Eve, at the most critical period in the Family's history, he was poisoned with a drug overdose. Had he lived, River Phoenix could have proven to be a dangerous liability to the cult, confirming reports of sexual abuse and child prostitution. So, holds the conspiracy theory that River Phoenix had actually been killed!!!!!!

abhishek said...

The reason River Phoenix could give such stand-out performances at such a young age is because of the fact that he was blessed with a profound understanding of the human condition, his maturity probably gained ground due to his unconventional upbringing, and early but rich exposure to eccentricities & ingenuity.
He portrayed the characters he played with not only a natural charm, which many a young actor might possess, but also with a deep insight, sensitivity & intelligence.