Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Phoenix Descending: The Young and the Restless and the Doomed

River Phoenix (1970-1993)

As a starstruck little girl, I experienced a broken heart when 24-year-old James Dean died in an automobile accident on September 30, 1955. From that day on, I began each entry in my diary with “Dear Jimmy.” A somewhat similar sadness took hold when drugs claimed the life of 23-year-old River Phoenix on Halloween 1993. But in starstruck adulthood, I no longer kept a diary with which to deny the untimely deaths of sensitive young actors.

Like Dean, Phoenix projected vulnerability, intensity and an edgy sense of potential self-destruction in his films. These qualities, which graced them both with a charisma lacking in most of their otherwise talented Hollywood peers, almost made tragedy seem inevitable. From a troubled adolescent in Stand by Me (1986) to the anguished son of fugitive parents in Running on Empty (1988), Phoenix brought that special something to the screen. In director Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), he portrays a character with narcolepsy. Never very lively while awake, he abruptly falls asleep anywhere, anytime – much like a junkie nodding out. It’s an uncanny performance in a strange movie based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

The press conference following the film’s Toronto festival premiere got me wondering, however. Both looking ultra cool in dark sunglasses, Phoenix and the flamboyant Flea (the Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player, who has a bit part in Idaho) were sitting on either side of Van Sant. Leaning on the table, head in hand, Phoenix looked stoned. When someone asked him about the movie’s difficult subject matter –  gay teen hustlers – he offered a bewildering response: “I sort of see it as a parallel to the Beatles’ song, ‘Number Nine,’ which is very mind-opening.”

The room got rather quiet then. Could he be talking about “Revolution 9”? On that jarring sound collage, a male voice chants: “Number nine, number nine, number nine.” Phoenix probably meant Lennon’s “Number Nine Dream,” which features the sort of head-trip lyrics that certainly opened minds in the 1960s:  “I thought I could feel music touching my soul...”

Gus Van Sant
Flea, who was with Phoenix two years later on the night of his demise, let it be known that he had desperately wanted a role in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Although the protagonist (portrayed by Matt Dillon) of that picture about addicts who plunder pharmacies suffers the consequences, the story presents a rather idyllic depiction of what it’s like to get high. Van Sant even cast the legendary and recalcitrant dope fiend William Burroughs in a guruesque cameo.

Yet, after its debut at the 1989 Montreal World Film Festival, Van Sant was irritated by someone’s suggestion that Drugstore Cowboy glamorized use of illegal substances. “I think it’s pretty heavy in its denunciation of drugs,” he said.”It is a Just Say No film.” OK, but the forbidden fruit mystique of that production also tempted Phoenix. At the 1991 Toronto event, he explained that his role in Idaho was “the most therapeutic of anything I’ve ever done before. I really wanted to work with Gus and thought it would be a lot of surreal time that’d be fun to play with.”

According to one “Tinseltown insider” quoted in a supermarket tabloid, Phoenix first experimented with heroin on the Idaho set. “He started doing smack so he could get into his character,” the source claimed. “But when the movie ended, River didn’t stop.” A few years later, his autopsy revealed an overdose of heroin and cocaine. It seems relevant to recall a line about doom from Henry IV Part 2: “We have heard the chimes at midnight.” He was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m. on October 31.

In Toronto, Phoenix had described his approach to the challenge of conveying a lost, fragile boy with narcolepsy: ”It’s a through-and-through belief that comes from, like, a brainwashing process. You must let yourself be a nerve ending in the service of the script.”

The 1993 Montreal fest spotlighted the last film he ever completed. The Thing Called Love, set in Nashville, is a flaccid, shallow tale directed by Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, 1971). Phoenix and Samantha Mathis – his real-life girlfriend, who also was with him on that fateful Halloween – appear as country music hopefuls in a romantic triangle that ends peacefully.

Peter Bogdanovich
Bogdanovich was on hand in Quebec without any of his actors for a press conference, at which I asked him if he’d been influenced at all by Robert Altman’s 1975 classic, Nashville. “I didn’t like it,” he said. “Bob Altman doesn’t like me personally and I don’t like him personally either. That was the film that made me dislike him. It was very irresponsible: A singer shot while on stage. That had never happened previously.”

Bogdanovich paused, then added: “Five years later, John Lennon was killed.”

After a moment of stunned silence, I asked: ”And you’re blaming Robert Altman?”

“No, but it’s not a wise thing to put out in the world,” he replied, referring to the Nashville assassination scene.

Perhaps Bogdanovich’s bizarre perspective stems from the fact that he lost the great love of his life, Dorothy Stratten, to a bullet. In 1980, the same year Lennon was gunned down, the actress had been shot by her estranged husband in a romantic triangle that ended violently. (Bob Fosse chronicled this saga in 1983‘s Star 80.)

In The Thing Called Love, Samantha Mathis bears a resemblance to Stratten but comes across as cloying at best. Eerily reminiscent of his Idaho persona, Phoenix just about sleepwalks through the proceedings – a nerve ending in search of a script. But, as if to make up for this deficiency in acting, his singing is quite wonderful during the film. He performs three songs, one of which he wrote himself. Music touched his soul, alright.

As I was thinking about all of this one day, synchronicity hit when a familiar tune began on the car radio: Not “#9 Dream,” but close. It was John Lennon, my fave among the Fab Four. While a starstruck college student, I actually kept a scrapbook with magazine pictures of him on page after page. During the drive, he was belting out “Stand By Me,” the title song of the movie that made River Phoenix –  middle name: Jude – a child star. And we all shine on, even if we have heard those damn chimes.

Addendum: Phoenix died while the shoot for Dark Blood – an apocalyptic drama in which he plays a hermit who lives on a nuclear testing site – was only 80 percent complete. The Dutch director, George Sluizer, acknowledges he recently liberated his footage from the vault of an insurance company that had been planning to destroy it. The never-to-be-fully-finished production screened in late September at the Netherlands Film Festival. The event was a sort of final triumph for Sluizer, who suffers from a terminal illness and is not expected to live much longer. The chimes at midnight strike again.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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