20 Years On

10.31.13

River Phoenix’s Fatal Halloween, 20 Years On

The 23-year-old actor shocked the world when he died 20 years ago. But why do so many young fans still identify with him today?

“He’s having seizures on Sunset and Larrabee!” shouts the man on the phone. “Please come here!”

The call was placed exactly 20 years ago today—Halloween night 1993. To our ears, in 2013, the voice on the line sounds familiar. It is neither deep nor high. Husky. Somewhat strained. And clearly—understandably—upset.

“How old is he?” the 9-1-1 dispatcher asks.

“He’s 23,” the caller says.

“Stay on the line with me and calm down a little bit, all right?”

“OK, I’m calm,” the caller replies. But his voice is rising and trembling, and seconds later, he begins to sob. “He’s having seizures! Get over here please! You must get over here please!”

Again, the dispatcher tries to calm the man down. “OK, take it easy,” he says, his tone low and soothing. “OK?”

The man on the phone was Joaquin Phoenix—the actor who would go on to star in Gladiator, Walk the Line, and The Master. Three days earlier, Joaquin had celebrated his 19th birthday. Now he was calling 9-1-1 about his brother River Phoenix.

A few minutes earlier inside the Viper Room, a nightclub on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, River had snorted heroin in the restroom, then vomited, then swallowed a Valium to steady himself. After complaining to his girlfriend, the actress Samantha Mathis, that he couldn’t breathe, River passed out at the bar. Soon he was outside on the sidewalk, “thrashing spasmodically,” as one observer put it—“his head flopping from side to side, arms flailing wildly.”

“I think he had a Valium or something, I don’t know,” Joaquin says on the tape. He’s trying to regain his composure—to stick to the facts. But then he snaps.

“Please!” he cries. “‘Cause he’s dying! Please!”

Thirty minutes later, River Phoenix was dead.

At the time, the news was maddening. Phoenix wasn’t just a young actor, or a good actor, though he was both. He was one of those rare actors who also seemed to reflect the attitudes and contradictions of an entire generation. For fans who saw themselves in Phoenix, to lose him so soon—only a few years after Stand by Me, Running on Empty, and My Own Private Idaho propelled him to stardom—felt somehow personal.

But the remarkable thing about River Phoenix isn’t that he made an impression way back when. It’s that even now, two decades after his death, he is still forging new bonds with new fans every day. On YouTube, admirers still post comments like “How I love him after all this time” and “RIP River miss you always.” New biographies—the latest, Last Night at the Viper Room, was released earlier this month—are still coming out. And this morning young people still gathered outside the Viper Room with signs in their hands and tears in their eyes, just as they did the night Phoenix passed away.

Why do we still care about River Phoenix? Why do his life and his work still resonate today?  

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Phoenix’s appeal was fairly easy to explain. He was gorgeous, for starters: the high cheekbones, the upturned nose, the delicate lips, the long, golden hair, and those squinting, probing eyes. On screen, he always played an intense young man grappling with the trials and tribulations of growing up—the talented son of wanted leftists in Running on Empty; the sensitive child of alcoholics and criminals in Stand by Me; a young Marine about to ship off to Vietnam in Dogfight; a love-struck gay street hustler in My Own Private Idaho. In each role he seemed to be behaving, not acting; every gesture and inflection was instinctive.

For some cosmic reason, the age itself was adolescent, in the best possible way—and so was its iconic movie star.

Off screen, Phoenix was the son of hippies who named him after the river of life from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. They moved 40 times, once joining a Christian cult called the Children of God. His views mirrored theirs, but they were purer, less Boomer-indulgent. He was vegan, and a prominent PETA spokesman, and he once purchased 800 acres of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica. Phoenix, in short, couldn’t stand hypocrisy or artifice; fed up with Hollywood, he retreated from the industry in the early 1990s to focus on his music. He was in every way a reflection of his era—a Generation Xer, like Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who struggled to stay true to himself and who eventually succumbed to his own desire for escape. It’s no wonder so many young fans identified with him.

The question is why so many young fans still identify with him today. America’s celebrity death cult has something to do with it; every sensitive star who died too soon—Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, and so on—is canonized in this country, regardless of talent. But with Phoenix there’s something deeper at work as well. The values of the early 1990s—scorning commercialism and conformity; rebelling against your elders; speaking your mind; championing a cause—aren’t just the values of a single generation. They’re the values that teenagers always cherish and aspire to, generation after generation. Grunge was teenagerish: the angst, the drama, the volume. Reality Bites was, too. For some cosmic reason, the age itself was adolescent, in the best possible way—and so was its iconic movie star.

River Phoenix: the eternal teenager. For anyone who is one, or who has ever been one, he will always be hard to resist. In fact, at a time when our young stars seem especially smooth, groomed, and conformist (see: Efron, Zac) or especially narcissistic, unyouthful, and debauched (see: Lohan, Lindsay), Phoenix’s principled, conflicted, untamed teenagerishness seems more alluring than ever. It is certainly missed. There’s simply no one like him in Hollywood any more.

Perhaps Grant Lee Phillips put it best in “Halloween,” a song he wrote shortly after Phoenix's death. It makes for good, sad listening on a day like today:

You were like my own James Byron Dean

Private Idaho was my East of Eden

Hit me like a stone when I heard you passed

On Halloween