16 Years Without River Phoenix
By Alex Wilburn
Too pure, too sensitive, we know River now as a true figure of duality, that blond stranger both young and old, who walked the tracks on both sides, who openly preached for a cleaner earth and carried no sense of rebellion, who cried at 15 years old when his girlfriend, Martha Plimpton, ordered lobster at a restaurant. "Heroin?" he once said, "I don't even eat meat." But drugs followed River at an early age. Pressured as the source of income for his parents and four younger siblings, by the time he was filming Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho he was living in a house with real street hustlers for authenticity and going out with them at night to learn their trade.
When Johnny Depp owned The Viper Room (until 2004) the club was closed every October 31st to morn River's death. I'm not sure if the new owner upholds this tradition, but if there are any L.A. twinks out there, with your floppy blond hair, wistful ideals and joints in your pockets, and you want lay down a flower or a kind word, you sure would be my hero. You may not know who he is, but he made you.
I suppose the tradition for a gay-themed blog would be to include the famous Private Idaho clip, penned by River himself, who wanted to truly play out his character's longing romantic nature and wounded heart as he confesses his feelings by fireside -- but I'm not. I think River's best work is actually in the extremely under-rated Running on Empty for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. Like almost every film he did, it too reflects a part of his real life, telling the story of a family on the run from the police after their radical protest politics go too far. River's character in this film -- a gifted oddball at school, searching for normalcy and teenage love -- didn't seem to be a stretch from the reality of his life either.
The ending of the film (not shown here, you'll have to rent it yourself) is a real kicker, and I dare you not get stirred up as James Taylor's old classic pulls us into the credits.
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I'd see you again...
-- ALEX WILBURN
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