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Further Phoenix
at Rio's Attic:

Dermot Mulroney

Silent Tongue

James Dean

Belbo Films

Alive Films

Sam Shepard

Talbot Roe

Alan Bates

Richard Harris

Carolyn Pfeiffer

Sheila Tousey

Academy Awards

Prescott Roe

Eamon McCree

Far North

Jeri Arredondo

Bright Angel


Clint Eastwood

Sam Shepard

Don Shewey

Gregory Peck

Albert Finney

Val Kilmer


The Field
Rio's Attic: Celebrating the Life and Times of a Dearly Missed River Phoenix
American EnglishEn Français

Sam Shepard

by Don Shewey.
Updated edition first published in 1997.

ISBN 0-306-80770-X (Paperback, 282 Pages)

Sam Shepard's career now spans more than thirty years writing theatrical plays, screenplays, acting and directing movies. First published in 1985, author Don Shewey has updated this biography recording a further twelve years that has seen Shepard's professional reputation grow from strength to strength.

Silent Tongue was the first ever French-financed Western. Belbo Films put up the money, though Alive Films' Carolyn Pfeiffer oversaw the production, as she did Far North. Originally Silent Tongue was going to star two movie legends, Gregory Peck and Albert Finney, as well as Val Kilmer, with whom Shepard had recently acted in Thunderheart. In the years-long hunt for financing that's maddeningly common for independent filmmaking - the picture finally went into production in 1992 - Shepard lost those actors, but the cast he got was not too shabby, either. Alan Bates played Eamon McCree, the Medicine Show owner, and Shepard cast Dermot Mulroney, who starred in Bright Angel, as his half-Indian son. Richard Harris, who'd recently appeared in Clint Eastwood's downbeat Western Unforgiven and won an Oscar nomination for The Field, played Prescott, and River Phoenix, a talented young actor with traces of James Dean's quiet soulfulness, was his grief-crazed son Talbot.

Just as it does with all of Shepard's movies and stage productions, the book takes time to acknowledge not only the main stars but also the work of the supporting actors as well, including the unexpected but very welcome recognition of Silent Tongue star Jeri Arredondo's full-blooded Mescalero-Apache Indian heritage. Is is unfortunate though this Ms. Arredondo's name is spelt incorrectly throughout the book.

Although describing Silent Tongue as "looking gorgeous," the author is not afraid to admit that unfortunately both of Shepard's first two movies, Far North and Silent Tongue were box office failures. The finished product is a well-balanced biography that is let down only by further numerous spelling mistakes.

The film tells two parallel stories about fathers and sons. The only women who figure in the movie are a pair of half-breed sisters, one who's living and one who's a ghost. They are, however, central figures. Their mother also appears briefly and symbolically - she is the title character, an Indian woman who had her tongue cut out after being raped by a white man. When one sister dies in childbirth, her young white husband goes crazy with grief and refuses to give her body proper burial.

River Phoenix spent a good deal of time working on his performance as the demented, love-crazed Talbot, who won't leave the dead body of his half-breed wife. Phoenix hung around with the Kiowa Indians, wore burnt cork on his face, and rumpled his hair with his fists. Every so often he would throw himself to the ground and writhe in the dirt.

The extraordinary lengths that River went through to first adopt the personality and then truly become whatever character he was about to play have been well documented, even ridiculed on occasion by less adept writers looking for cheap laughs to brighten an otherwise dull piece of writing. Shewey however prefers to fill his work with fascinating stories, interesting anecdotes and unusual facts, and instead spends time recognizing and appreciating the various acting techniques that performers make use of. The result is a most worthy read.

Shepard encouraged Phoenix's intense efforts to get into character. To reinforce the bond Talbot feels to his dead wife, during rehearsals Shepard literally tied Phoenix to Sheila Tousey with a piece of twine. "Grotowski once said a great thing about directing. He said you have to seduce the actors; you actually have to invite actors into a world where they feel they've never been before. More than anything you have to encourage actors to be courageous. Most of them want to be, but there's a tremendous fear. Almost every really good actor I've come across in some part of himself is terrified. And you have to make that terror less prevalent by inviting him to explore something that may be dangerous but in the end is going to pay off." Unfortunately, by the time Silent Tongue opened, River Phoenix was dead, another sad drug casualty, at age 23.

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