In 1993, Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the 42nd President, Whitney Houston‘s “I Will Always Love You” was #1 on the charts, and an introspective 23-year-old actor, by the name of River Phoenix, passed away from a lethal drug overdose; outside Johnny Depp’s nightclub, The Viper Room. I was only two at the time, and therefore was not aware of the momentous effect the tragic news bared. It wasn’t until I turned fifteen, when I became properly acquainted with the actor, whose talent knew no bounds. It was a frigid Friday night in January, and I was sleeping over a friends house, when, while flipping through the channels, I came upon a film titled My Own Private Idaho. But it wasn’t the film which caused me to pause my fervent channel surfing. It was the mysterious, blonde stranger, with the intense blue gaze, and the hoarsely-warm drawl.
The animated emotions, which I was experiencing in that moment, had not been encountered since I was seven, when I first watched Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.
Oh, Jack Dawson, how your rough winds still manage to shake my darling buds of May!
I continued to watch this Angel-like and enigmatic stranger, deliver one of the best, yet heartbreaking performances I had ever witnessed in film. With each passing minute, I felt myself getting lost in this stranger’s intoxicating presence, falling deeper and deeper into an unknown reality. It was in that moment, when my obsession with River Phoenix, a Hollywood outsider, whose underlined innocence induced a childlike exuberance; fully began. It wasn’t until I got home the next morning, when I discovered that River Phoenix had passed away more than twelve years ago, from ingesting a deadly concoction of heroine and cocaine. You could imagine my shock and utter disappointment.
I had been introduced to Heaven, only to have it taken from me the very next day. I couldn’t quite fathom why I had become so infatuated with a complete stranger, in the span of 24 hours. I didn’t know River. He never knew me. So, what was the explanation for this newfound jumble of emotion? My mother blamed it on his looks, accusing me of only liking him because of his profound handsomeness. But, although River was undoubtably attractive, I find it difficult believing that was the sole purpose in my sudden interest in him. I hardly think I’m that shallow.
A fire had been ignited, which would possibly never be extinguished. With that being said, I decided to do some research on this actor, who was constantly shrouded in obscurity and pain. I felt that it was an appropriate way to better rationalize my regard for him. Throughout the next few weeks, I read every memoir, watched every interview, and familiarized myself with all of River’s films, in which I was left feeling more confused and saddened. Flash forward eight years later, and I’m still as obsessed with River as I was when I was fifteen. Perhaps the reason for this constant consumption, is the overall tragedy which lingers around River’s life and death.
It’s no secret that River lived a distressed life, infused with sorrow and suffering. Perhaps that was the instigator for his drug use, which ultimately led to his unplanned demise outside The Viper Room on Halloween night. But despite his continuous torment, which was apparent throughout all his films, River somehow managed to conceal his pain behind a mask of humility and content. His vast love for all living things, and endless participation in numerous charities, painted a different picture than the alleged, tortured drug addict, many claimed River was.
Then again, maybe River was even more talented than I had even assumed. But perhaps that is what I find truly fascinating about him. Regardless of the heavy past he carried on his shoulders, he still managed to deliver a worthy performance both on and off the screen. His accomplishment knew no end, which is why it is so heartbreaking that he is now gone. But a part of me likes to imagine him happy, someplace where melancholy is a foreign concept.
Here’s to you River, may you forever rest in peace.