The sea refuses no River

How come no one talks about River Phoenix anymore? I feel like the quirky actor’s reputation is due for a renaissance.

Phoenix died nearly twenty years ago. A great many other young actors have died in the intervening two decades, many leaving a trail of good-to-great performances behind them. But in my considered opinion, none of these sudden departures amounted to as severe a debit on Hollywood’s talent account as River Phoenix’s did. I worry that most people remember him, if they remember him at all, convulsing on the pavement outside the Viper Room. He was a great actor. He should be remembered that way.

River Phoenix was a constant presence in some of the most interesting movies of the late 1980s: Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast, Running on Empty. I was a young teenager then. No one my age can forget that River Phoenix received the ultimate honor of playing the young Indiana Jones in the final third installment of that seminal film series.

This was the dawn of the video age. Save Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I never saw any of his movies in a theater. My parents would bring them home on VHS on the recommendation of some video store clerk. They would have been looking for something more cerebral than the steroidal action flicks that were dominating the box office at the time. They were hoping for a grown up movie that would have appeal to a teenage boy. River Phoenix’s movies did.

He was a little older than me, the perfect age to stand in for an imaginary moment as the older brother I did not have. He could be moody, but seemed fundamentally decent. Though his characters were conflicted, they ended up doing the right thing. Just like an older brother should. In a mumbling and shaggy-haired way, he was wholesome. He was the slightly socially awkward all-American boy. Just like me. Just like all of us.

He died right around my twentieth birthday, a time when my world seemed alive with connections. It may have been the first time that a celebrity death struck me in that unexpectedly personal way. That happens sometimes. I felt as if someone I knew personally had died.

At the time he died, tributes to his career and talent were mainly centered on his work in Gus Van Sant’s edgy My Own Private Idaho. Although Phoenix was very good in this, I never cared for the film. Too weird and, frankly, too gay. I don’t mean to sound close minded, it just didn’t have much to say to me.

The performance of his that appealed to me most was in a film called Dogfight. As far as I am aware, this movie was not a huge hit. But for some reason it got under my skin and has never really left me. I loved that movie.

The plot is quite simple. It involves a young soldier (Phoenix) and his buddies on a 24-hours leave in San Francisco before they have to ship out to Vietnam. To amuse themselves, they fan out across the city in search of the ugliest girls they can find. The one who brings the ugliest date to a party later that night wins the “dogfight.”

Phoenix meets a shy young folk singer (played by Lili Taylor), who is not, in fact, ugly at all. At the party, she’s able to suss out what the guys are up to. Naturally, she is not amused. The rest of the film is Phoenix’s attempts to win her back. They have one night together and he departs to the war, where his three friends are killed by a mortar attack. When he returns to San Francisco in search of Taylor, the city has changed beyond recognition. As a veteran of an unpopular war, in the city that gave flower its power, he is shaken by the verbal abuse he is subject to for walking around in his military field jacket. I think I remember some hippie spitting on him, or asking how many babies he’d killed, or some other silly trope from the Vietnam-era (I haven’t seen Dogfight in at least 20 years, so I may be mangling this part).

I watched this movie six or seven times before returning it. I’m sure I rented it more than once. I don’t know why it grabbed me then, or why it’s has had such a lingering effect. I suspect it’s because Phoenix comes across as such a decent guy, even though he has crummy friends and the world is conspiring to kill him before he can experience just a little bit of love. This is an appealing notion to a teeanager with concerns that we might all just be victims of circumstance, doing the best we can to cope with forces beyond our control.

Phoenix does most of the work carrying that theme across in the film. It’s a brilliant job of acting. He spends the first two thirds of the movie keeping a very cruel secret from the girl. It’s to his credit that the audience feels every uncomfortable moment of that. It would have been very easy to play it simply as a love story with a tragic outcome. Instead, you struggle right along with the guy. It’s a dilemma film, and the dilemma is handled by Phoenix with the graceful ease of a professional.

It’s remarkable that he was only twenty or so in Dogfight. It’s even more remarkable, given the consistently high quality of his body of work, that most of it was accomplished while he was still in his teens. His performance in Dogfight said a lot to me. I’m glad that someone has decided to adapt the film for the stage, though I’m sorry that it’s being done as a musical. I don’t think that form will do justice to the subtle tension of Phoenix’s performance. But I’m glad it hasn’t been forgotten

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