On the 21st anniversary of the death of actor River Phoenix, Stylo Film reflects on the star’s brightest performance, as Mike Waters in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991).
River Phoenix as Mike Waters
Stood on the side of a road that never ends. It’s his road. The fucked up face. Cattle Call soundtrack yodeling cowboy blues. All hand held. Handsome features, not quite a man. Hair swept wild and erratic. Clothes well-worn and beaten, styled for sleepless nights on loveless streets. His home-movie memories of a mother flicker and fail as visions of home fall out of the sky, smashing into a thousand tiny splinters. Stood by the side of a road, waiting. He mumbles quietly to himself and paces back and forth, checking his pocket watch. Waiting…for what exactly? Something is happening somewhere, but not here. Not on this road. Clouds shape and shift in time-lapse motion. Again he checks his pocket watch, but why? There is no reason to know of the time.
He is timeless.
It’s the small hours of Halloween, 1993, just off Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood. The body of a boy, sprawled out on the sidewalk, suffers the final throes of a lethal drug overdose. Those close try and fail to resuscitate. Having been dragged out of The Viper Room, Hollywood’s home to the hip and the young, his night passes by without him. The sound of the stage plays on. Outside someone finally makes for the phone booth. It’s the boy’s brother. All 911 calls are recorded yet this one will be broadcasted. This is when the seizures begin. Sirens sound in the distance. The chaos of the club soon pours out. A crowd gather in fancy dress, keen to witness whispers that had filtered through the night. Paparazzi pounce then think better of it. Paramedics try and fail to resuscitate. Under blinking blue light, the convulsions cease and the body is still. He was pronounced dead at 1:51am, October 31, 1993. He was 23 years old.
“When the walls of the world close in, he simply drifts off into a dream. Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about losing yourself. It’s about being lost in a moment, in a drug or even in the arms of a stranger.”
Two hustlers, one born into wealth, the other poverty, aimlessly wander the margins of society – nowhere to go, no place to be. We meet Mike on his return to Portland, Oregon, as he reunites with a collective of fellow hustlers. They pass the time gathered in graffiti stained bathrooms and cheap diners, blowing smoke and swapping stories. Dark haired, handsome and straight, his friend Scott looks on his own hustling ways as mere days of rebellion, an act that will eventually be dropped when he turns 21 and inherits his father’s fortune. Mike however has no such promise. He is the lost boy who looks for love and sells sex. Vulnerable, quiet and gay, he suffers from narcolepsy: a stress-induced condition characterized by brief attacks of deep sleep. As a result he is disinterested and disconnected from his surroundings, prone to nodding in off in the climax of a scene. When the walls of the world close in, he simply drifts off into a dream – his own private Idaho. Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about losing yourself. It’s about being lost in a moment, in a drug or even in the arms of a stranger. Shot in shallow depth of field, Mike fades in and out of focus. Eventually Scott and Mike skip town and embark on a journey of personal discovery in the hope of finding Mike’s long lost mother. It’s a journey that takes them from Portland to Idaho, Rome and back. Finally Scott returns home to his fortune, leaving Mike and the low life behind.
After the critical success of his debut offering Drugstore Cowboy (1989), director Gus Van Sant looked to return to a project that was close to the heart. The self-penned tale of two hustlers searching for a home was one that had not been met kindly when pitched originally to studios, its script being deemed ‘too risky’. It was only after the subsequent recognition of Drugstore that Gus could get their attention. He had only one request; River Phoenix. Rumour has it the actor’s agent wouldn’t even allow for him to see the script. Yet where his management saw risk, River saw opportunity. It was an opportunity to finally shed the skin of teen sensation and sink his teeth into something substantial. Whichever way you look at it, for an actor whose career had been built on an image of purity, acting a gay prostitute was a hell of a risk. Yet in 1991 Gus Van Sant presented My Own Private Idaho to critical acclaim.
The Fucked-Up Face
River Phoenix: actor, animal activist, spiritualist, musician and vegan, he was an Oscar nominated teen idol and Hollywood’s golden child. The son of hippies, he gained widespread attention for his first significant role as outcast Chris Chambers in Rob Reiner’s coming of age classic Stand by Me (1986), before being nominated for an Academy Award for Running on Empty (1988), the story of a son running away from the fugitive lifestyle of his parents. Nicknamed the “Vegan James Dean”, River was recognised as much for supporting and financially aiding environmental and humanitarian organizations, as he was for his acting. Yet two weeks after his death, toxicology studies would reveal traces of heroin, cocaine, cannabis and valium in the bloodstream. It was a dirty death for a clean living child, an irony that was not lost on the media who went into a feeding frenzy. Pictures of River – open casket, cropped hair and colourless – circulated the glossy magazines, supposedly demonstrating the dangers of drug abuse. The distress call, the one his brother made from the nearest phone-booth, had air time on all the major channels. Condemned as a poster boy of wasted youth, it’s now rare to read his name in print these days without focus being on his untimely demise. He has become but a harrowing anecdote to the career of brother Joaquin and a warning to be soon slapped in the faces of celebrated child stars. His legacy has become mythical, destined to live on in Tumblr feeds and unauthorised biographies. He stares out from the chests of Topman teens and creeps up in unpopular pop songs. So why is it that River’s name has not endured in the same way that the likes of James Dean and Heath Ledger, other stars who died too soon, has? Where River differs from the ‘live fast, die young’ tragedy types he has since been associated with is that he lacks a commercially recognised body of work. His filmography existed on the peripheral, the avant-garde. Besides a cameo role in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade (1989), he never made a major mainstream hit. Yet as Mike Waters he delivered an intimate, instinctive performance as the motherless child, lost in the homes and hearts of strangers.
River favoured a style of method acting championed by the likes of Brando/Dean/Clift. Often compared to the late great icon throughout his career, it is understood that Phoenix died having never seen a James Dean film. As a child he was raised on the road, away from the history of cinema. He had a talent that was raw and unschooled, unpredictable and magical. So it goes that he discarded all source material that Gus had tried to pass on, commenting that he had a lifetime of wandering state to state from his hippy upbringing to draw upon. He went out into the night and spoke with these lost boys, eager to learn and to live. You can find him in the background of a scene, the edge of your screen – always interpreting, improvising. Years later fan boy actor James Franco would present a video art piece entitled ‘My Own Private River’, in which he showcased 100 minutes of unseen footage of River from the dailies of Idaho. Critics were given rare access to a character without story or script. Each take he is different. Each take he is reborn. It is compelling viewing of an actor displaying a natural nuance and instinct for his craft
“Cut off on the eve of greatness, My Own Private Idaho stands as River’s truly great performance and as a testament to an actor with boundless potential . Cinema mourns the boy who never grew up.”
It’s testament then to River’s talent that his star shines so bright in a film such as this. By all accounts it is idiosyncratic filmmaking. It dips in and out of narrative and Shakespeare, fiction and documentary. It’s surreal to the point of absurd with an aesthetic that wouldn’t look out of place in a William Eggleston print. The entire middle act is bogged down and lost in a baffling pastiche of Henry V. Yet through it all, its success is it never taking its eye of the emotional crux: this notion of home. How far can you go astray before you are truly lost? There’s a stroke of genius when Gus invites real hustlers of Portland to sit before the camera and tell their own tales. When given an audience these boys spill their secrets. They talk of the street life, the drug life, hustles gone bad and hustles gone good. They talk of the future with nothing but optimism. Mike sleeps through it all.
The campfire scene in particular anchors an otherwise wandering narrative and showcases just what made River so special. The two friends discuss their idea of home. Scott, having been brought up with a silver spoon, resents his father and yearns to break away and be his own man. Mike, having never known of a ‘normal’ family life, aches to be held and comforted. It is here where he confesses to Scott that he could love him without payment. Originally forecast as a 3 page shoot, River took it upon himself to rewrite the whole scene, bringing a level of innocence and clarity to what on paper had been an emotionally and sexually ambiguous character. For River, this was to be the closing of one act and the beginning of another. Audiences hadn’t seen this side of the star and rewarded him at the 1991 Venice Film Festival, as best actor. He gave himself over to characters and it is said to be no coincidence that whispers of a descent into drug abuse sadly began surfacing in Hollywood around the period of Idaho. Footage of interviews surrounding the press release would show a kid squirming under the light of the lens, dirtied and uncomfortable, evasive and contradictory. “(On the subject of drugs)…I don’t even like talking about it…Nancy’s said it all for me, anyway: Just say no.” Cut off on the eve of greatness, My Own Private Idaho stands as River’s truly great performance and as a testament to an actor with boundless potential. Cinema mourns the boy who never grew up.
Dispatcher: “Where’s your brother right now?”
Caller: He’s lying on the cement!”
Dispatcher: “Is he breathing?”
Caller: “(…) I don’t know.”
19 years after production was forced to shut down, the director finished his film. It was an aneurysm and some rather grave words from a doctor that had brought upon this urge to finish the unfinished. Reels of its fragmented footage had long since been discarded by the insurance company, left to collect dust in the dark corners of some warehouse somewhere. With the help of his associates, the director broke in and stole back his film, which he smuggled to New York. He then shipped this 700 kg of footage to Holland where the film was held in storage until he could appeal to fans and gather funding that would see it to the finish.
It was an apocalyptic feature centring on the character of ‘Boy’; a young hermit and widower in a derelict post-nuclear landscape. When a successful Hollywood couple find themselves stranded in the desert, Boy at first comes to their rescue, only to imprison them later on. It was to be called ‘Dark Blood’ and had been due for release in 1993 had tragedy not struck. By all accounts it had been a difficult shoot. A toxic atmosphere between the director and his female lead had not helped a gruelling five week shoot in the Utah desert. With 80% of the footage in the can, cast and crew then flew to LA, to complete the final 11 days of interior shooting in studio. On return, the director has revealed his young star has having said: “We’re going back to that bad, bad town.” Driving off into the night, it was to be the last time the director saw his actor. The performance of ‘Boy’ was never completed.
His road. The fucked up face. Camera steady, kept at a distance. Eyes flicker as the boy falls. Beaten and broken, left to lie in the middle of a road that never ends. Slide guitar sounds, up and down. “I’m a connoisseur of roads. I’ve been tasting them my whole life.” Some people take your heart, others take your shoes, and still others take you home.
Forever waiting, but for what?
He is timeless.
River Phoenix starred in 13 feature films. Dark Blood premiered in 2013 at the Netherlands Film Festival, unfinished.