Phenomenally talented and famously caring, River Phoenix’s death shocked the world. We look back on the extraordinary talent and missing legacy of River Phoenix. And why he would have had it all if he had lived.
River Phoenix shot to fame in the 1986 coming of age film Stand By Me. The then 15-year-old River became an 80s heartthrob and a talent to keep your eye on. As the years went by River made more films, most of which have not stood the test of time. The Oscar-nominated actor’s death marked an end to a short but prolific career. But one film, My Own Private Idaho, is still as relevant and beautiful today as it was in 1991. It is iconic but rarely seen now.
Some people argue neither Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio would have had the level of success they’ve had if Phoenix had lived. River had been up for several roles taken on by DiCaprio following his death. And before Leo was saving the planet – it was Phoenix’s passion (at a time when talking about the environment was not cool).
DiCaprio said he had grown up “revering” Phoenix as “the greatest actor of my generation.” Saying getting to shake his hand is “all I ever wanted.”
Speaking on River’s death, Leo said: “I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s this existential thing where I felt like … he disappeared in front of my very eyes, and the tragedy that I felt [after] of having lost this great influence for me and all my friends.”
Three of DiCaprio’s early roles – Basketball Diaries, This Boy’s Life and (reportedly) Titanic – were supposed to be Rivers.
A great actor
Even from a young age, Phoenix had a remarkable on-screen presence. He was a good enough actor to express complex emotions and took risks with his career. He posed for photos with a jaded attitude and had suffered enough youthful trauma that he was entitled to be sour – but everything he did, on-screen and off was pure joy. And its why his death felt so cruel.
“I think he was the best. Is. Was. Is the best of the young guys. I’m not just saying that now – I said that before he died. He had something I don’t understand,” said Brad Pitt.
If River had lived he’d be 49-years-old, you can look at his 80s/90s peers – Brad, Leo, Ethan Hawke or even his own brother Joaquin Phoenix and see what kind of career he might have had.
When River died of a drug overdose on a pavement in Hollywood at the age of 23, many assumed he would become the next James Dean. A symbol of restless youth, encumbered with more talent and beauty than he knew what do do with, who’s life was cut tragically short. But that didn’t happen.
River’s film legacy is largely missing. For the few youths who do know his name, it’s usually down to a few posts on Instagram of a charmingly good looking teen idol. But its what Phoenix would have hated. In life, he did not hide his dismay at being called a heartthrob or doing the teeny-bopper magazine covers.
Perhaps his film legacy has largely been forgotten because only a handful of his films are accessible. You’ll struggle to find his best four films (Dogfight, Running on Empty, Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho) on Netflix or on TV. His stand out film – My Own Private Idaho – is too hard to cut down for basic cable.
But the biggest reason River’s legacy is largely missing is because of the tragic death of Kurt Cobain just a year later. Apparently, the 90s only had room for one beautiful, talented blonde boy who symbolised youthful tragedy, and they chose Cobain.
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