The greatness of River Phoenix is only underscored by the tragedy that he has been gone for 27 years. Many artists have died without ever realizing their full potential. River Phoenix not only realized his full potential but soared past it in a way that made you think the possibilities of his talent were endless. Look at the career that Leonardo Dicaprio has had and try to imagine River Phoenix in those same roles or possibly the two megastars sharing the screen. And what about the outstanding career of his younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix, and the thought that movie fans could’ve been watching them compete for awards while giving the audience unforgettable performance after another. Unfortunately, the world lost a beautiful soul when River Phoenix passed away but his performances and legacy will live on forever. Two films he made in 1991 are true classics in the portrayal of a lonely, sensitive, brooding outsider. A role that Phoenix perfected, maybe because it was so close to who he really was.
River plays Eddie, a young Marine on the eve of his deployment to the simmering situation in Southeast Asia that would become the Vietnam War. The film’s title refers to the inciting incident of the film when Eddie and his fellow Marines scour the streets of San Francisco for dates to a “Dog Fight.” This is the crude title of a contest where whoever shows up with the ugliest date wins a cash prize. Eddie settles on Rose, a waitress and aspiring folk singer played by Lily Taylor. The two are perfect opposites as they wander the streets for a night with Eddie looking around every corner for a fight while Rose preaches about non violence and being more understanding of the people around you. Rose’s compassion wins over Eddie’s gung ho attitude and the night culminates with them making love and promising to write each other while Eddie is away at war.
The end has Eddie back where he was at the start of the film in San Francisco and limping around the same streets he and Rose had drifted through together. This is where River Phoenix’s brooding intensity shines as he stops into a bar, dressed in his fatigues, and orders a beer. The bartender and two patrons don’t know how to treat the returning veteran so they make an awkward attempt by buying him a beer. Eddie, noticeably limping, crosses the street and enters Rose’s cafe. In this scene, which runs over two minutes, the star of the film says two words: ‘Rose?’ and ‘Hi.’ River Phoenix could have said nothing in this scene because it is his eyes and face that do all of the talking. With his hair slightly messed up and pushed down on his forehead, he looks like a little boy, his face on the verge of crumbling. It is finally when Rose hugs Eddie that he lets go and allows her to comfort and love him. Alternating close ups show the emotion on both actors faces as they contemplate what this reunion means. Rose looks a little frightened where Eddie looks remorseful and grateful to be back in Rose’s arms after everything he has just gone through.
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)
The role of ‘Scott’ in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho would be a courageous choice for an actor in 2020 let alone in 1991 when it was made. It amazes me how many courageous and challenging roles River Phoenix was able to squeeze in in such a short period of time but none more than this role where he plays a male prostitute who suffers from bouts of narcolepsy and memories of an abusive childhood. So many great wide landscape shots with only Phoenix on the screen show this man’s isolation from the world around around him. Phoenix drifts through these beautiful landscapes for the entire film, from Idaho all the way to Italy and back, as he says “this road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.”
This film is extraordinary in the brilliance of its subject matter coupled with some truly beautiful filmmaking. One scene that I believe makes the entire film was one that was actually written by Phoenix himself. The ‘Campfire’ scene. While not in the original script, Phoenix decided the character of Scott needed to tell Mike, played by Keanu Reeves, how much he loves him. Phoenix stares at the fire, a soft orange glow illuminating his face, and tells Mike that he knows his life has been hard due to trauma from his childhood. While Mike tries to brush off Scott’s advances with wisecracks, Phoenix digs in and tell him that he just wants someone he can love and he knows that someone is Mike. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Mike shoots down Scott and tells him he can’t be in love with another man. Knowing he has shattered Scott’s hopes and dreams of being in love, Mike invites him over to sit next to him. Phoenix, like a ghost, crawls into Mike’s arms and the two hug in the glow of the campfire. For Scott, this is an omen for the heartbreak and rejection that will continue to follow him for the rest of the film.
If you haven’t seen these two films or any of River Phoenix’s films in a long time, I recommend a retrospective. While we will never get another River Phoenix film, the performances he left are timeless.