I hardly ever think about River Phoenix’s untimely death these days.
I’m still acutely aware of the giant hole his passing left, though. If you were still young when he dropped dead on Halloween night, 1993, you may not have understood just how much pressure there was on Phoenix as one of Hollywood’s biggest young stars.
He was, after all, brilliant. Not just a good young actor, but a remarkable presence on a set, someone who had very quickly made themselves an indispensable part of the industry. He made a strong impression early, and then kept delivering on that promise with performance after performance. Whatever it was that drove him, Phoenix seemed miles ahead of his peers. When you watch his work in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” for example, pay attention to the way he gets every detail of Harrison Ford’s iconic work as Indy into his performance, and then remember that he spent time with Ford playing father and son in “The Mosquito Coast” a few years earlier. He was a sponge, soaking up the people around him and then perfectly playing back what he observed. He was movie star pretty, but he also seemed to chafe at the notion of being a movie star. He was bold in the projects and the collaborators he sought out, and he was trying to find his own voice as an artist in the people he chose to work with.
He seemed to be making that uneasy piece between commerce and art as the ’90s started revving up. I would argue that “My Own Private Idaho” was one of the most important films of his career, both in terms of the left turn he took there from the movies he’d been making up to that point and in terms of the bad habits he picked up while researching his role. As he tried to play the “one for them, one for me” game, doing a “Sneakers” or an “Interview With The Vampire” so he could also make “Dogfight” or “Silent Tongue,” he seemed like he was getting comfortable with it. And then, unfortunately, he did too much of the wrong thing on the wrong night, and he was gone. Just like that.
I remember reading the script for “Dark Blood” as it was working its way through production, and I thought it was one of those projects that all depended on execution. Done right, it could have been a harrowing emotional ride, and done wrong, it could have been very, very silly. George Sluzier wrote himself a real challenge as a director, an exercise in tone, and then he put together a very strong cast in the form of River Phoenix, Jonathan Pryce, and Judy Davis. The film wasn’t 100% finished when Phoenix died, but word was they had enough to cut the film if Sluzier was willing to work around what didn’t get shot.
Now, 18 years later, it looks like Sluzier is doing that, and we’re finally going to see the movie.
I’m excited, because even if the film doesn’t quite gel, it’s going to be surreal to see a new film starring someone who’s been dead so long that there are going to be legal adults this year who weren’t born at the time he passed away. I often play the game of wondering what roles would have been given to Phoenix if he’d lived, and whose careers might have been affected or even roadblocked completely. I believe he would have gone on getting better, and even if he had rough years or rough runs, I think he also would have been able to pull it together and give the performances that would have defined the pop culture of the last 20 years.
Using Joaquin Phoenix to finish some voice-over work for his brother is an interesting idea, and I’m sure it will be an emotional experience for him. No word on a date or how far along in the process this is, but it’s very welcome news, indeed.