Nineties impact

The iconic film roles that defined River Phoenix
By Joey Levenson | Film+TV | 23 August 2017

Still, Dark Blood (1993/2012) dir. George Sluizer

Top Image: Still, Dark Blood (1993/2012) dir. George Sluizer

If you were old enough in the ’90s to be up with Hollywood culture, chances were you knew of River Phoenix. The actor – who would have turned 48 today, had he not tragically overdosed at The Viper Room on Halloween in 1993 – only lived to the age of 23, but swung the hearts of film critics, young girls and brooding mothers during the course of his short-lived career.

Phoenix was dubbed the James Dean of the ’90s – an impressive feat in a decade taken over by a Nirvana-obsessed youth wave that would more likely blaze out to a stoner comedy than Rebel Without a Cause. But Phoenix was a double threat, harking back to the golden days of film with his California-good looks and the award-worthy acting skills to match. Whilst many at the time tapped him to be the ‘next big thing’, in hindsight, it turns out the career he endured was quite enough to secure him a Hollywood legacy that has withstood the test of time. So much so, in fact, that actor James Franco and director Gus Van Sant (who Phoenix worked with on My Own Private Idaho) once put together a documentary that gathered over twelve hours of never-before-seen footage of the young actor, and was due for release had it not been opposed by members of the Phoenix family.

On what would’ve been River’s 47th birthday, we’re taking a look back on his most iconic roles. Whether or not you’ve seen these all before (or you’re just now learning Joaquin had an older brother), take note, sit back and re-live what made everyone fall in love with River – the ultimate ’90s heartthrob – in the first place.

Gallery: River Phoenix's most iconic roles




1. My Own Private Idaho (1991), dir. Gus Van Sant

Perhaps one of Phoenix’s most revered roles (in spite of the Academy Award snub), in My Own Private Idaho the young actor plays the role of narcoleptic gigolo Mike Waters, who lives on the street of Portland with his best friend (Keanu Reeves). The two embark on a journey from Seattle to Portland to Idaho, and soon enough, Italy, in search of Mike’s long-lost mother. This character-driven piece surprisingly develops different layers throughout, touching on themes of loneliness and longing, to unrequited love and poverty. Not only is this movie a one-of-a-kind, but atop of that, Phoenix’s role had been described as “a stunningly sensitive performance, poignant and comic [all] at once”.

2. Stand By Me (dir. Rob Reiner), 1986

If you’ve just finished your binge-watch of Stranger Things then look no further than Stand By Me for one of the show’s most overt influencers. Setting the standard for all coming-of-age films to come, Stand By Me is based off Stephen King’s novel The Body and is a touching portrayal of four young boys who go on a quasi-mission to uncover the dead body of a missing boy in their small Oregon town. Whilst being Phoenix’s second ever movie role, this film was certainly his break-out, and by watching his powerful performance here, it’s clear to see why the industry became so infatuated by him.

3. Running on Empty, (dir. Sidney Lumet) 1988

Whilst often forgotten now, Running on Empty was a critic’s darling of its time, and mainly due to Phoenix’s performance. Aged just eighteen, Phoenix was given an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film portrays a criminal family who’ve been on the run for years, much to the chagrin of their child, Danny. However, when Danny comes of age, he decides he wants to step out of hiding and live freely in his own life, even in spite of the risk that he may have to cut ties with his parents. A rather melodramatic plot is given finesse and understated emotion from Phoenix, and it’s no surprise this film banked him an invite to all the big award shows of the time.

4. Dogfight (1991), dir. Nancy Savoca

Despite receiving an almost non-existent cinematic release, this film definitely delivers one of Phoenix’s most poignant roles. Dogfight depicts a group of eighteen-year-old boys who, on the night before they are set to be sent to Vietnam, come across the game of ‘Dogfight’, where they all have to find a date to their party, and whoever finds the worst is crowned the winner. But when Eddie Birdlace’s (Phoenix) choice of introverted Rose (Lili Taylor) sees right through his lies, Birdlace begins to realise he may actually have feelings for the girl. No spoilers here, but expect plenty of teenage angst and heartbreak wrapped in adept political commentary.

5. The Mosquito Coast (1986), dir. Peter Weir

Although not winning as much praise as his roles in Running on Empty and My Own Private Idaho, 16-year-old Phoenix won the Young Artist Award for Best Young Male Superstar in Motion Pictures for his part in The Mosquito Coast, which is probably a pretty big deal to any sixteen-year-old. And if you have a knack for nostalgia, then you’re in for sure trip with this film. Expect to find a young Harrison Ford and a young Helen Mirren frolicking around in the jungle whilst playing parents to an even younger River Phoenix. Now that’s enough to send any ’80s fan into a head spin.

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