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The enduring legacy of River Phoenix: 'A symbol of restless youth'

As Joaquin Phoenix names his son after his late brother, River's life both on and off screen makes for an impressive, and complicated, name to live up to

Actor River Phoenix tragically died in 1993 at the age of 23. His brother, Joaquin, ensures his legacy lives on, naming his newborn son after him. Getty Images
Actor River Phoenix tragically died in 1993 at the age of 23. His brother, Joaquin, ensures his legacy lives on, naming his newborn son after him. Getty Images

"I’m not crying, you’re crying."

"I was not prepared for my emotional reaction to the news that Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara named their new baby boy River."

"Congratulations to the Phoenix family and please ignore my gentle sobbing."

The outpouring of emotion across the internet this week, following the news that Joaquin Phoenix named his new baby son River, has shown that affection for his older brother, the late actor River Phoenix, remains as strong as ever.

Described by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea as “the kindest person I have ever known in my life” – before Leonardo DiCaprio was raising eco-awareness, before Liam Hemsworth swore off meat, before Cole Sprouse espoused gender equality on Twitter – River was the Hollywood trailblazer extolling the benefits of veganism, looking after the planet and clean living. The irony of the last is not lost on his fans.

W044B8 Joaquin Phoenix (R) and Rooney Mara arrive at a photo call for the film "Her" during the 8th annual Rome International Film Festival in Rome on November 10, 2013. UPI/David Silpa
The news that Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara named their son River caused an outpouring of emotion online. UPI

‘Too talented, too beautiful’

These days, the deaths of Heath Ledger, Naya Rivera and the like are documented moment by moment in real time on social media and in our 24-hour news cycle.

A symbol of restless youth, encumbered with more talent and beauty than he knew what to do with

Gavin Edwards

But River died before YouTube, before Twitter and Instagram and hashtags. Before the ubiquitousness of the LA paparazzi.

When he died at the age of 23 on October 31, 1993, there was only one confirmation – the leaked 911 call made by a frantic 19-year-old Joaquin trying desperately to save his brother, who was convulsing on the pavement outside Johnny Depp’s LA club, The Viper Room.

“He’s having seizures on Sunset and Larrabee, please come here,” he sobbed as the dispatcher appealed for him to stay calm. “He’s 23 … Please, because he’s dying, please.”

No one took photos the way they would today. No one really knew what was happening, including Depp who was performing onstage at the time. No one knew until River flatlined in the street before the paramedics arrived. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital, his cause of death listed as ‘acute multiple drug intoxication’.

“A symbol of restless youth, encumbered with more talent and beauty than he knew what to do with, coming to an abrupt, early end,” Gavin Edwards, author of Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind, wrote about the troubled star who had hidden his drug use from his fans. And there’s no denying his was a celebrity death that defined Generation X.

River Phoenix attends the Lunch of the First Oscar Nominees. (Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images)
The actor was nominated for an Oscar for 1998's 'Running on Empty'. Getty

Leonardo DiCaprio: ‘He was the great actor of my generation’

“I think he was the best. Is. Was. Is the best of the young guys,” said Brad Pitt about River, some years after his death. “I’m not just saying that now – I said that before he died. He had something I don’t understand.”

Slotting in perfectly between the legacy of James Dean, who also died tragically young, at the age of 24, and Leonardo DiCaprio whose Hollywood star would rise just after him, River was, for many, the most beautiful actor of his generation.

With his long, floppy hair and his fervent belief in environmental and animal rights activism, his passion for music – his band, Aleka’s Attic, also featured his sister, Rain – made him an anachronism that’s hard to appreciate by today’s standards when every young star is not only ‘woke’ but also a triple threat.

“I grew up revering River Phoenix as the great actor of my generation, and all I ever wanted was to have just an opportunity to shake his hand,” DiCaprio told Esquire. “And one night, at a party in Silver Lake, I saw him walk up a flight of stairs. It was almost like something you would see in Vertigo, because I saw there was something in his face, and I’d never met him – always wanted to meet him, always wanted to just have an encounter with him – and he was walking toward me and I kind of froze. And then the crowd got in my way, and I looked back and he was gone.

“I walked back up the stairs and back down, and I was like, ‘Where did he go?’ And he was ... on his way to The Viper Room.”

Burdened by being the breadwinner

Having worked with directors such as Steven Spielberg, Gus Van Sant and Sidney Lumet, River left behind a body of work that, while revered by established actors, is also a veritable playbook for new ones.

And it was his turn as Chris Chambers in the 1986 film Stand By Me that garnered the then-16-year-old River global attention.

River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton in Stand by Me (1986)
River Phoenix's role in 'Stand by Me' drew critical acclaim. IMDb

“When River came in to audition, it was obvious that he was just an amazing, amazing talent,” said director Rob Reiner. “I said to him: ‘I want you to think about a time when someone, an adult who is important to you, let you down.’ He nodded and went away to think for a few minutes. The next take, in which he’s crying, is the one that’s in the movie. He never told me what he thought about – I assumed maybe one of his parents, but I don’t know. And when I watch the movie now, when he disappears at the end, it’s just very, very sad.”

Balancing his love of independent film with his need to support his family appeared to be a perennial issue. With his father, John, battling issues with alcohol, friends have said River bore the brunt of shouldering the financial needs of his family.

The Phoenix Family next to the RV they travel in when they do missionary work, at their home in Los Angeles, California, US, circa 1986; L-R Summer Phoenix, River Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix, John Lee Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Arlyn Phoenix. (Photo by Dianna Whitley/Getty Images)
The Phoenix family circa 1986; L-R Summer Phoenix, River Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix, John Lee Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Arlyn Phoenix. Getty Images

Actress Samantha Mathis, who was dating River and was with him the night he died, told The Guardian, “River said to me in that last year: ‘I just have to make one more movie to put away enough money so my youngest sister can go to college.’ I don’t know if that was true, but I remember him saying that.”

PM8FYY Film still / publicity still from "The Thing Called Love" Samantha Mathis, River Phoenix © 1993 Paramount Photo Credit: Ron Batzdorff File Reference # 31371055THA For Editorial Use Only All Rights Reserved
River Phoenix starred alongside his girlfriend Samantha Mathis in 1993's 'The Thing Called Love'. Paramount

Joaquin: ‘I owe my incredible life to River’

“I feel like in virtually every movie that I made, there was a connection to River in some way. And I think that we’ve all felt his presence and guidance in our lives in numerous ways,” Joaquin told 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper earlier this year, about his older brother’s lingering influence on his and the Phoenix family’s lives.

American actors Joaquin and River Phoenix cooking at their home in Los Angeles, California, US, circa 1985. (Photo by Dianna Whitley/Getty Images)
Joaquin Phoenix and River Phoenix at their home in Los Angeles circa 1985. Getty Images

Scooping the Best Actor Oscar for Joker this year, until recently, Joaquin had always been reluctant to publicly discuss his brother, largely owing to his famously fractious relationship with the press over the years.

“During that time in which you’re most vulnerable, there are helicopters flying over. There are people that are trying to sneak on to your land,” he said of the aftermath of his brother’s death. “Certainly, for me, it felt like it impeded on the mourning process.”

DiCaprio said: “The tragedy that I felt afterward of having lost this great influence for me and all of my friends ... the actor we all talked about. “I remember extending my hand out, and then I looked back, and then he wasn’t there.”

River, who would have turned 50 on August 23 this year, once said: “I used to tell people I wanted to change the world and they used to think, ‘This kid’s really weird’.”

Environmental awareness, animal rights, the healing power of music … A quick sift through Generation Z’s hashtags would prove that River Phoenix’s is not such a weird legacy after all.

Updated: October 4, 2020 08:04 PM

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