He would have turned 40 today. Unfortunately, River Phoenix died in 1993 of a drug overdose outside LA's Viper Room as Johnny Depp performed on stage inside. Not just because it's his birthday, and a significant one at that, we are missing the forever-young actor this August and wondering what he might have been doing lately had he lived. Would he have any involvement with brother Joaquin's enigmatic retirement and subsequent rap career, or at least appear in the (faux?) documentary I'm Still Here? What would he have thought of Dinner with Schmucks, which reminds me of his underrated drama Dogfight? Might he have been able to take over the Indiana Jones franchise so we didn't get the old-man version we're currently stuck with?
And if not that, what other series would he be starring in now? You know he would have been another Depp or Robert Downey Jr., putting more talent into a franchise that didn't seem to deserve him at first. Could he have been a superhero? Or, would he have focused more on dramatic roles and easily won an Oscar or four after losing that nomination for Running on Empty? Given that Phoenix showed us remarkable talent so early and had diverse roles in sci-fi, westerns, action-adventure, drama, black comedy, coming of age, spy caper and gay modernizations of Shakespeare (My Own Private Idaho). And he seemed to get along with a number of his collaborators, many of whom, like Sidney Poitier, Keanu Reeves and Dermot Mulroney (and sort of Harrison Ford) he worked with more than once.
Phoenix was great as a suave leading man or a sometimes-comedic member of an ensemble. I love him especially in the latter capacity in his earliest films Explorers (as a cute nerd type before becoming a teen hearthrob with...) and Stand By Me as well as later, under-appreciated movies like I Love You to Death and especially Sneakers (my favorite) In that last one he shows signs he could have ended up one of the core stars of the Oceans 11 movies -- alongside brother-in-law Casey Affleck, who is married to his sister Rain. In addition to giving us a slew of great performances during his decade in the industry, he also had a future in music, whether through his own band, Aleka's Attic, or his co-partnership in the House of Blues. His interest in environmental causes would also still fit in well today.
Having seen people like Downey, Drew Barrymore and Jason Bateman overcome their addictions and relevant '90s slumps, it's even sadder to think of what we and he missed out on. Fortunately we have the nearly 15 features he did appear in, and here to share some favorites are other Cinematical writers:
"It was a touch of genius on the part of Steven Spielberg to cast River Phoenix as the young Indiana Jones. The director needed a youthful actor for a clever sequence explaining how our favorite archaeologist got his trademark hat, bullwhip, chin scar, fear of snakes, etc., so he enlisted the 19-year-old Phoenix for the role. The actor was fresh off of Little Nikita and Running on Empty, so it must have been pretty exciting to leap into a beloved adventure series.
"Mr. Phoenix was quite excellent as the young Indiana Jones, delivering a performance that was half of an homage to Harrison Ford and half just plain ol' heroic derring-do. It's a clever and very likable little performance, and one that indicated a little "action hero" potential from the young actor.
"Happy 40th birthday to the late River Phoenix. The movie world has been a little less interesting since he died."
"It's hard to believe eighteen years have passed since Phoenix starred in My Own Private Idaho. Despite a series of strong performances stretching back a decade, it wasn't until My Own Private Idaho that I realized Phoenix was a once-in-a-generation actor, an actor capable of revealing a character's turbulent inner life persuasively.
"Seeing (and hearing) Phoenix's character-revealing scene in My Own Private Idaho, e.g., a campfire where his character expresses his feelings for Keanu Reeves character (only to be rebuffed), immediately reminded me of James Dean's performances in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause.
"At that moment, I couldn't help but hope that Phoenix wouldn't suffer a similar, unfortunate fate. He did. Movies were (and still are) much poorer for it."
"Somewhere in the midst of Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty, my attention was diverted from Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti, as fugitives raising their family on the run from the FBI, and shifted to River Phoenix, as their eldest son, struggling to establish his own identity. He started off sleepy-eyed and dutiful, and slowly emerged like a bubbling volcano, a cauldron of emotions and desires, defined by love for his parents, and yet yearning to be set free. In those pre-IMDB days, I kept wondering, "Who is this kid?" not realizing it was the boy from Explorers and The Mosquito Coast. He had an uncanny ability to disappear into his characters, and I wish he was still around to pop up and surprise us with another startling performance."
"River Phoenix was magical in Stand By Me, a perfect storm between director Rob Reiner and writer Stephen King. Their tender and sentimental take on one transformative day in four boys' lives was never saccharine but still managed to pull at the gut. Phoenix's performance as Chris Chambers, the tough kid with the cigarette box rolled up in his sleeve who desperately wants to get out of their small town and make something of himself, illustrated the young actor's depth at the same time it showed the promise his future held.
"I was just young enough to have a crush on River Phoenix when Stand By Me came out; he was blond and beautiful but still exotic, not just another teen heartthrob no matter how often he showed up in those magazine. Hearing about his troubled life and death still saddens me for the people who knew him and loved him in real life, and not just on the screen."
"The final moments of Stand By Me, where it's revealed that River Phoenix's Chris Chambers is stabbed and killed in a bar fight sometime after the movie's story concludes, take on a special poignancy after Phoenix's death in 1993. The film's journey is epic, and we bond with its four pint-sized leads as much as they bond with one another. When Chris's image fades out it's impossible not to feel an emotional tug for the actor who brought him to the screen.
'We were robbed of his talent too young - Phoenix was a maverick whose best work was still to come. His choices were brave and his performances shone, but his was a career still on the cusp of maturing. What we might have seen from him in the years since 1993, alongside contemporaries like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, simply doesn't bear thinking about."