American actor River Phoenix was one of the rising stars in Hollywood with stellar performances in classics like Stand By Me and Running On Empty, among others. He started his career as a child actor and began appearing in television commercials since he was ten years of age. Phoenix received several accolades during his short career including an Academy Award nomination as well as a Golden Globe nomination for his work on Running On Empty. Apart from his film career, River was an environmental and animal rights activist.
In 1980, Phoenix started focusing on his acting career by making his first appearance on a TV show called Fantasy singing with his sister Rain. Two years later, he was cast in the short-lived CBS Television series called Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Although his first feature-film debut was in Joe Dante’s 1985 sci-fi film Explorers, his real breakthrough came with his brilliant performance in Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic Stand By Me.
Phoenix’s career was cut short due to his untimely and tragic death from a drug overdose in 1993 when he was just 23.
On what would have been his 50th birthday, we reflect on some of his best film roles in fond remembrance of the talented actor.
River Phoenix’s Top 10 Best Films:
10. The Thing Called Love (Peter Bogdanovich – 1993)
This 1993 comedy-drama featured a stellar cast with top actors like Samantha Mathis, Dermot Mulroney, Sandra Bullock and Phoenix himself. River Phoenix delivers an endearing performance as one of the aspiring singers who hope to make it in the country music business and find love.
Bogdanovich acknowledged that River did some writing for the film, “He wrote two songs, and one of them we couldn’t use because we just didn’t have a place for it, but it was a really good song. The other one was the one he sings to her outside the hospital and later in the Bluebird, ‘Lone Star State of Mind’.”
He also noted, The studio called me — I was in New York — and said, ‘What do you think about River Phoenix?’ And I said, ‘Jesus, he’d be great. He’s a wonderful actor; he can do anything.’ So they were thrilled, and they made a deal with River.”
9. Explorers (Joe Dante – 1985)
Joe Dante’s 1985 sci-fi film marked the film debuts for both River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke. Phoenix established himself as a child actor of high calibre by playing the role of a science prodigy who manages to build a spaceship with the help of Hawke’s character who is obsessed with the idea. Although it didn’t do well at the Box Office, it’s still a worthwhile watch for the fans of the two actors.
Phoenix wasn’t thrilled about playing a geek, Dante recalled. “For him it was always a performance because he was vehemently not that guy,” the director said. “When a girl would come by he would always take the glasses off.”
8. Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson – 1992)
Robert Redford stars as a security specialist who reunites his old team on a new mission in this nuanced but light-hearted thriller about cryptography and government secrets. Phoenix plays the role of Carl, a young and talented computer hacker who is eager about being a part of this veteran team.
Phoenix had this to say about his character, “Carl is the youngest and, obviously, the newest at this forum and he takes his cues from the big guys. He’s very, very enthusiastic about his new job, he wants to do well and he’s girl crazy.”
7. The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir – 1986)
Although the main focus of the film is Harrison Ford who won a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as the idealistic inventor, Phoenix holds his own as his eldest son. Ford’s character finds contemporary America unbearable and decides to take his family to the rainforests of Central America in order to start a civilization of his own.
However, he slowly starts to lose it which strains his relationship with his family. Phoenix captured the anguish of being lost perfectly with this role, his demeanour reflects the disillusionment of realising that his biggest role model doesn’t know what he is doing.
Phoenix was full of admiration for Harrison Ford, saying, “I didn’t know what to expect in the beginning. He was very down to earth, a very logical man, a very smart man, really educated. Practical. He’s sturdy. He seems like psychologically, he’s a sturdy man. A real father figure. In control. Very centred.”
6. I Love You To Death (Lawrence Kasdan – 1990)
Lawrence Kasdan’s dark comedy stars Kevin Kline, Tracy Ullman, William Hurt and Phoenix. The film follows the story of a pizza shop owner whose wife has had enough with him and decides to kill him. Phoenix is brilliant as the sensitive restaurant worker who secretly has a thing for his boss’s wife and decides to help her kill him.
“Tracey Ullman and I clicked especially well,” Phoenix recalled. “We had a really good time. We’d just mouth off and get clever on each other and play word games and stuff. And I learned such a lot during the filming. I mean, the amount of learning experience from this project would probably equal, you know, the sum of all the other films I’ve done.”
5. Dogfight (Nancy Savoca – 1991)
Phoenix plays the role of Eddie, one of the several young men who are about to be deployed to Vietnam. Before leaving, they decide to indulge in the extremely misogynistic ritual they call “Dogfight” where the winner is the one who seduces the “ugliest” girl. It is hard for actors to be so consciously and blatantly prejudiced but Phoenix goes against his nature and delivers a riveting performance.
“I give these guys credit,” Savoca said. “Sometimes it was a little nerve-wracking for them to do the dogfight stuff, especially with a woman director. Here I am directing them, and they’re going, ‘Is this politically correct? I’m horrified, Nancy, I can’t do this!’ So I found myself having to encourage them, saying, ‘Have a good time!’”
4. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg – 1989)
Harrison Ford and River Phoenix had already worked together in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast before Phoenix took on the iconic role of a young Indiana Jones in the third film of the franchise. The only complaint is that we don’t see enough of him.
He is witty, charming and intelligent as the young explorer and engages in a lot of action-packed scenes.
“River, you know… I love River’s work, especially when he was in Stand By Me. Harrison was actually the one who suggested River,” Spielberg revealed. “He said to me, ‘the guy who looks most like me when I was that age is this actor named River Phoenix’. It was a Harrison Ford’s idea, because he played Harrison’s son in The Mosquito Coast. So I met River and I thought he was great, and I cast him.’’
3. My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant – 1991)
Based very loosely on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, Gus Van Sant’s compelling drama features River Phoenix as Mike, one of a group of young men who work as male prostitutes on the streets of Portland. It follows the story of two friends Mike and Scott (played by Keanu Reeves) as they travel to find Mike’s mother.
This role still remains one of Phoenix’s most powerful performances. Phoenix won the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Actor, the Best Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics and was a runner up at the New York Society of Film Critics.
Phoenix addressed the challenges he faced while portraying a narcoleptic character, “Jake was a narcoleptic in Portland who worked with me. I spent a lot of time talking to him about why narcolepsy happens. I understood it completely from the medical and scientific standpoint, though they don’t know exactly what it is.
“But when I was with Jake he never had a narcoleptic attack in front of me. After I’d done a few of the fits, Gus (Van Sant) said they were exactly the way Jake had them.”
2. Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet – 1988)
Phoenix earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role in this 1998 Sidney Lumet film about a family on the run due to their actions as anti-war terrorists. Undoubtedly one of his finest performances, Phoenix is moving and earnest as a young man who is conflicted and cannot choose between his future and allegiance to his own family.
Speaking about the director, Phoenix said, “He’s very spontaneous in his directing and calls for that in the acting. There’s not a lot of repetitive stuff, repetitive takes and it’s very organic, I feel.”
1. Stand By Me (Rob Reiner – 1986)
This was River Phoenix’s first stand out performance and still remains one his most iconic role, thanks to the popularity of Rob Reiner’s classic coming-of-age drama.
Phoenix is sensitive and wise beyond his years as Chris, a product of a dysfunctional family who fights against society’s expectations of him and makes something of himself. The intimate moments he shares with Gordie (played by Wil Wheaton) are some of the most touching accounts of childhood friendship at its finest, supportive and strong.
While being questioned about the casting process, Reiner recalled, “We saw so many people. I can’t remember them all. Mostly, I remember being incredibly moved by River when he came in to read for Chris Chambers.”
He added, “River did [the milk money scene] a couple of times, and it didn’t have that emotion to it. I just took him aside and said, ‘you don’t have to tell me what it is, but think about a time that an adult, somebody important to you, let you down and you felt like they weren’t there for you.’
“The next take is the one that’s in the movie. I never knew what he thought about. I assume it was his father or his mother, but I don’t know. He never said it to me.”