Dec 20, 2012

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.  19 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.

See also: I Was Betrayed by Keanu Reeves.