Jun 26, 2018

River Phoenix: Running on Empty

River Phoenix died on Halloween night, 1993, at the Viper Room, a Sunset Boulevard hotspot a few blocks north of my apartment in West Hollywood.  Over 20 years have passed, but he remains a gay icon.

Though he had been performing for several years, including a starring role in a tv version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982), he first drew the attention of gay fans at the age of 14, in Explorers (1985), as the buddy of a boy (Ethan Hawke) who finds an alien spaceship.

After the heterosexist "coming of age" movie Stand by Me (1986), River starred in The Mosquito Coast (1986), as the son of an eccentric inventor (Harrison Ford of Star Wars).  There he moved perceptibly from child star to teen idol, revealing a smooth muscular chest and abs.

Most teen idol vehicles are fluffy, lightweight, feel-good concoctions, but aside from the teen sex comedy A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), River's movies were serious, even dark.  His characters in Little Nikita (1988), Running on Empty (1988), and I Love You to Death (1988) rarely smiled; they were in pain; they were searching, exhausted from searching, "running on empty."

And they ached with desire.  Like fellow teen idol Brad Renfro, like Leif Garrett a decade before, River Phoenix imbued every relationship with a unstated but intensely erotic desire.  Unvariegated, sometimes for women, sometimes for men, usually older men. Twice for Dermot Mulroney (in Silent Tongue and This Thing Called Love). 

Even his frequent shirtless and semi-nude scenes presented him more as someone aching with loneliness rather than as an object of desire.  He gazes at the camera, confused, wondering who is out there looking at him, asking, with Allen Ginsberg, "Are you my angel?"

Twenty years ago, the only gay teenagers in the movies were bisexual hustlers who abandoned their "gay lifestyle" for a girl (such as Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Speedway Junkie and Lukas Haas in Johns), but in My Own Private Idaho (1991), Mike (River) is gay, going with women only when necessary for his job, and he falls in love with an unresponsive straight hustler (Keanu Reeves). 

River enjoyed being an object of desire for both men and women, and he desired both men and women.  He had girlfriends and boyfriends throughout his life.  The rumor mill paired him with nearly every actor rumored to be gay at the time, including Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, and talk show host Merv Griffin.  Many of the twinks I knew claimed to have been with him.  Maybe some of them were telling the truth.

 But it wasn't his male partners that made River Phoenix a gay icon.  It was his combination of sexual knowledge and vulnerability, his neverending search not only for sex but for love.


  1. Did you ever meet River Phoenix?

  2. You mention meeting Michael J. Fox, Lee Montgomery, and Robin Willians. Who else? A complete list, please.

  3. River Phoenix was my first true love. Like you said, he was more than a "teen idol", he was the last of the true "movie stars". I'm honestly not seeing any comparison to Leif Garrett or Brad Renfro AT ALL, but he seemed to me like a throwback to the days of James Dean and Marlon Brando when stars were more than just cute boys slapped onto the big screen. I was surprised you completely glossed right over 'Stand by Me' on this page until I clicked the link to your post about the film. I personally don't remember getting a "heterosexist" feeling from the film at all (I don't remember the f-word perjorative or any mention of girls at all except one throw-away joke about Annette Funicello's bustline, so I apparently need to watch the film again), in fact, I distinctly remember it being the first film I'd ever seen that developed a serious emotional "relationship" between two boys my age (read by me at age 13 as decidedly "gay"), beyond the usual "frat boy" humor (it was the mid-80s after all). I've heard some people say the same thing about the film 'My Bodyguard', but that was released several years prior to me being able to go to the movies by myself and pick which films I wanted to see, so I didn't see that one until years later. It's obvious you dislike 'Stand by Me' (and I admit there may have been some things I didn't perceive when I was 13), but believe me, 'Stand by Me' was the film that made River Phoenix a movie star among both gay and straight fans, no two ways about it. Yes, he starred in 'Explorers' before that, but the nerd glasses and Poindexter wardrobe in that film made him so unappealing that I doubt anyone who'd seen it even remembered his name (I know I didn't).

  4. I'd argue My Own Private Idaho created its own tropes, for better or worse: 90s gay movies were full of small-town teens who find liberation in the big city, or are murdered by intolerant rubes. (Never mind that outside of a couple city blocks, big cities were no better.)


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