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"River Phoenix was a generous, compassionate young man who would do anything at any time for anybody."- John L. Barker
Running on Emptyby John L. Barker.
First published in 1998.
Most knowledgeable about his subject, Barker begins his book by comparing and contrasting some of the more interesting parallels of River's career, successfully identifying a number fascinating links between what initially appear to be quite separate movies. The author continues by examining the recurring themes of River's career such as "the elder son" and "the strong father-figure." Also, quite rightly pointed out is the always subtle indication of his character's sensitivity that River was able to make apparent simply by the use of outstanding acting rather than relying on the script itself.
The book includes a biographical profile of River's life away from the camera as well as a section containing the story-lines and plot details for each of River's films. Also present is a collection of poetry and stories.
The author successfully takes his readers on an enjoyable tour of River's short life and career. So enjoyable is this journey in fact that it is quite someway into it before one realizes that there is regrettably something not quite right with this book.
Throughout the book, one subject is repeatedly returned to time and time again. The reader might assume that it is a subject that must be very important given that it is mentioned, by our count, an extraordinary total of sixty-five times. Yet, it is not River's concerns for animals or the environment that is written about so often. It is not the magical performances he gave in front of a camera or the infinite amounts of love and generosity that River gave to his family and friends.
On October 31, 1993, a young actor and singer, River Phoenix, collapsed outside Hollywood nightclub the Viper Room - the result of a drug overdose taken inside the club. On January 16, 1995, a young actor and singer, Jason Donovan, collapsed outside Hollywood nightclub the Viper Room - the result of a drug overdose taken inside the club. Both were rushed to the local Cedars-Sinai hospital.
An identical set of circumstances up until that point, but it is there that the similarities end, because one of them lived and one of them died.
Today, when the media talks of these actors, their introductions are always the same. They will always begin by describing one of them as an "actor and singer" and yet describe the other as a "drug addict". Given that one of these actor-singer's arguably betters the other on both counts, we believe this to be something of an injustice.
Maybe promises of "restoring River's tarnished image" raised our hopes too highly but we were nevertheless left somewhat puzzled on several occasions. The subject of narcotics should be addressed in a biography such as this, but to do so on almost every other page is, at best, out of proportion with the unique person that is being discussed. Linda McCartney is not remembered for breast cancer, but rather her wholehearted promotion of the vegetarian lifestyle as well as her selfless support for the welfare of animals. So should it be with the Prince of the silver-screen.
Nevertheless, putting this one (and only) gripe to one side, it was something of a relief to see that the author's description of River's attitude to others is quite simply, spot-on....
The book goes some way to demonstrate incidents such as this and gives an accurate impression of just how River treated his friends and those around him. It also shows, equally accurately, just how River was himself treated by others.
Monsters still roam the earth, and they take on many varied forms and disguises. So called fans for example, who selfishly attempt to get unfinished movies released and songs published, desperate to get hold of every last piece of River with little if any consideration given to either River or his family. In life, River Phoenix spent a tormented existence having the very life sucked right out of him. It appears that even in death, River was not, and is still not, allowed to find the peace and privacy he so longed for.
That there are other human beings at the opposite end of this ethical spectrum selflessly prepared to create works such as this does wonders for restoring ones' opinion of the human race.
The idea of Leonardo DiCapRio "taking over" from River so to speak is a popular theory but one that doesn't stand up to much investigation. The movie The Man in the Iron Mask that DiCaprio starred in has absolutely nothing to do with William Richert's version, starring Timothy Bottoms and Richert's son/River's friend Nick Richert, which River had agreed to appear in as a favor to his director and close friend. Likewise, whether or not Volker Schlondorff's Rimbaud biography project that River was interested in ultimately became Agnieszka Holland's Total Eclipse, is also unclear.