He may have been the last great actor of the twentieth century, but does anybody remember River Phoenix? It was Halloween night of 1992 when he fell dead, at the age of 23, on the sidewalk in front of Johnny Depp’s Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. The next day, that sidewalk was covered in flowers and memorial tributes to the young actor, who had recently won numerous awards for his portrayal of a narcoleptic male prostitute in Gus Van Sant’s bent take on Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” and grieving teenagers around the world sat by their radios, tears in their hearts for the passing of their idol.
A year and some months passed before the altars to Phoenix had been deserted for a more spectacular celebrity death, when Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain was found with his head blown off and enough heroin in his blood to kill a dozen people. Quickly filed away by Seattle police as a suicide, there is more than enough proof to indict his wife Courtney Love for conspiracy to commit murder, if not for Murder One.
Five years passed before another pretty boy grabbed everyone’s attention. Heath Ledger had been getting intermittent television work for about five years before “10 Things I Hate About You” kickstarted a career in motion pictures that ended with his death from a drug overdose in 2008. This tragedy is sure to have jarred the memories of some old River Phoenix fans, but most of the pop culture junkies were too busy anticipating Ledger’s final performance as the Joker in another Batman episode to shed many more tears for Phoenix. That was fifteen years ago. the fifteen year old girl who had mourned him was now a thirty year old adult who had long since taken down all the teen magazine covers from her bedroom walls. but she still had room in her heart for Heath. After all, he was 28 years old, still in her age range.
I don’t hear many fans still ruing the passing of the man who was said to be the first great actor of the 21st Century. There are too many current and up-and-coming actors to persist in the deification of the dead ones. But once in a while, someone will come across one of those old films that meant so much to them when they were one of the kids, and they might be reminded of how important popular culture had been to them before they tore down the stars and grew up.
The opening scenes of “My Own Private Idaho” seemed designed to frighten homophobes out of the theater, and I have to admit that the sight of an old, fat, hairy guy sucking on a chicken bone might make one wish they hadn’t brought their mother to the show, but it is important to be explicit about what is happening in this room so that we are empathetic with Mike’s (River Phoenix) situation without romanticizing it. It is not comically degenerate, as were the scenes Joe Dallesandro filmed with Paul Morrissey under the Warhol banner, but the malaise here is so much more oppressive, making the scenes more uncomfortable for Mom.
The love scenes between Mike and Scott (Keanu Reeves) reminded me of the warm relationships between the runaway kids in the documentary “Streetwise.” Free of the exploitive aspect of cross-generational prostitution, these scenes are filled with a romantic optimism that lessens Mike’s loneliness as he flees the unwanted attention of a creepy German while yielding to narcoleptic sleep between batting himself through recollected images of his errant mother. But finally, Scott, who fills in here for Prince Harry, gives Mike the heave-ho that Shakespeare, in his play, reserved for Falstaff, represented here as Big Bob, the fat, old. hairy guy.
The jumps between Elizabethan and Northwestern American English are not as jarring as one might expect. In fact, Van Sant keeps them pretty fluid. It just seems like Big Bob and Scott are consciously acting out Shakespeare’s dialogues between Falstaff and Prince Harry, not actually becoming the characters. One of the unique pleasures of the movie is realizing the parallels between the modern story and the Shakespeare play. They not only open the story up to alternate interpretations, but gives Scott an escapist fantasy to relieve himself of the burden of his own incipient inheritance, while at the same time warning him of the destiny he is fated to accept.
Scott’s world is inhibited by the demands of his rich family as oppressively as Mike’s world has been decimated by the absence of parents. Both Reeves and Phoenix go off the high dive with their brave, all-consuming performances, and Van Sant takes chances that few career-minded directors would dare. He risks pretension, incoherence, and the general audience’s rejection of outlaw intimacy in order to build a bridge from Falstaff’s drunken dungeons to the drug-addled debauchery of Portland’s street hustlers, hopefully to lift them all through the ceilings imposed upon them by literature and society, and into the light of a new day.
I think about all the young artists who have got their heads bashed in trying to knock a hole in that ceiling. And its not only artists. We all are restrained by that ceiling someone or something has placed above our heads. And when we try to remove that ceiling, we often replace it with another one. “My Own Private Idaho” is about those ceilings. Whether it is a love for Shakespeare that makes the modern dramatist feel he is no good, a confusion between intimacy and sexuality that intills unsurity in one’s social relationships, or the disparity between what we want and what our parents want to give us that causes us to either rebel against materialism or become hoarders of counterfeit wealth. Perhaps it was the ceiling over River Phoenix’s head that pushed him down into the complexities of Mike’s depression that nudged him toward that ball of morphine and cocaine that killed him. Maybe and maybe not. And maybe you were one of those young people mourning him on Halloween 92. Or maybe you are too young to have known who he was. Doesn’t matter now. Whether you remember him, forgotten him, or never new him, he is still there, waiting for you in “My Own Private Idaho.”