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The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
by David Thomson
Presently in its fourth edition, this collection of mini-biographies provides a useful "who's who" reference to the countless performers of the movie industry over the years. First printed in 1975, this self-proclaimed reference dictionary has now been updated again to include everyone from off-screen performers like Muppets creator Jim Henson, through to more contemporary figures such as Angelina Jolie and Catherine Zeta Jones, as well as up-and-coming performers like Haley Joel Osment.
River Phoenix (1970-93) b. Madras, Oregon
River is mentioned on occasion at other points in the book which features a thousand or so profiles in total. During the section on Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, the author talks about River being originally cast to play DiCaprio's role of Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries. It's during the section about River though, that the author goes on to raise the most interesting and provocative of all the points he raises.
He was a rock musician as well as an actor, and even before his death he had become an icon to a generation. Was he promising, or good? Yes. But put his work next to Dean's three films, and you can feel the difference between the loss of a myth and a celebrity accident.
The author's deep-rooted admiration for James Dean comes as no great shock having already been firmly established earlier in the book with an entire page given over to his career. The author fondly recalls seeing Dean's movies for the first time as well as discussing his achievements before his movie career.
But to compare James Dean and River Phoenix so curtly provides something of a disservice to both performers. Such a comparison, while predictably dividing fans, deserves a much closer examination. The now iconic image of Dean as the rebellious 1950's teenager has become part of movie-industry lore, and something that a picture of Jeff Grant, for example, is unlikely to ever re-create with the same accomplishment. Likewise, Dean's career, sadly curtailed as it was, precluded him from a career portraying such diverse and varied characters stretching from the likes of Chris Chambers and Danny Pope through to Mike Waters. Truly, one can no easily compare James Dean with River Phoenix than one can proverbially compare apples and oranges.
None of these issues seems to matter to the author who without pause for any reflection given in such large measure to other performers, quickly goes on to list River's lengthy film credits. Joaquin Phoenix is briefly mentioned at the end of the section about River, described by the author as someone who "promises to be better still," but does not apparently yet deserve a section of his own.
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