Remembering River Phoenix
Updated: Aug 24
Why do we mourn for the people we've never met?
I read earlier that River Phoenix would have turned 50 today. It’s not a date noted on my calendar and I wouldn’t have known the year he was born. Twitter provides us with a modernised prosopography - a system that will never know how to cradle the appropriate words when a significant date like this arrives. If there ever are appropriate words for such a thing. And today, even knowing very well the details of Phoenix's tragic death in 1993, this information stung all over again.
I can’t remember exactly where I watched 'Stand By Me' for the first time but I’ll never forget the impact that film had on me, even at a young age. Maybe especially at a young age. My friend Joanna (with which I share over 30 years of friendship) and I watched it so many times during our primary school years, we could then - and even now, all these years later - act out the whole thing.
The VHS was certified as a 15 so I don’t know how we managed to sneak so many viewings in but we giggled our way through the profanities the four young actors spat out, covered our eyes to avoid Eyeball’s tattoo skills, and fast-forwarded through the unbearable super-spew pie-eating contest.
Joanna and I danced and popped our mouth along to ‘Lollipop’ following them down the rail tracks. We felt the goosebumps on our arms as the boys emerged from the leech pond. We knew the secret code to join them in the treehouse (“VERN!”).
We also watched Chris Chambers (played by Phoenix) cry his eyes out to Gordie (Wil Wheaton) in the darkness of the woods. We saw them uncover a dead body that they had originally taken a journey to find and “be heroes”. We observed them finding their own strength as they stopped the psychopathic Ace (Kiefer Sutherland) lunge at Chris with a knife.
They grew up through the film and so did we. To quote Teddy, “We were at the prime of our youth and we only live once." Through all the years since we first knew those characters on screen, they became our sidekicks on our own life railroads. When 'Stand By Me' was playing at my first ever outdoor cinema experience, I sent a video to Joanna of them playing cards in their treehouse while the Brooklyn Bridge glowed behind them. On later travels, I spotted Phoenix’s face on a vest in a stall on Khao San Road which I had to fight a Canadian for. Well, I lost but she let me take a photo of it so I could send it all the way back home to Joanna who I knew would appreciate just as much as I did. When I fell ill five years ago, she dropped off our very familiar lyrics in a beautiful frame that hangs on my bedroom wall - ‘And the moon is the only light we’ll see…’
River Phoenix, Stand By Me, 1986
Today, I forwarded the tweet that broke my heart to Joanna, knowing she would feel it too. I remember once seeing director Rob Reiner commenting on the end scene where Chris walks away from Gordie, fading down the path into the trees and disappears entirely. The lives for those characters were going to change forever - growing up, taking different paths, struggling down their own tracks, and experiencing losing people they love. The significance within that story is stronger and even more tender to watch now knowing what happened to Phoenix at the young age of 23. Especially the moment when Gordie asks Chris, “Why did Denny [his brother] have to die?” Those words had never rang so true.
He wasn’t a real person in my life but his captivating presence in that film was an arm around my shoulders, watching it as a child, and perhaps it remains there now. Over the years, I have metaphorically experienced at least one ’train dodge’. I’ve dropped the comb. I’ve never ever been able to figure out who Goofy is. (Ok, maybe that’s less metaphorically. I seriously don’t know.) I’ll always feel sad when River Phoenix appears on my social wall. A young actor I never actually had to know personally to still be inspired and astounded by in many parts of my life.
Even here as I type the words like grown-up Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) at the end, I think about the beautiful moment when Chris comforts his friend, encouraging his craft saying, “You might even write about us guys someday.”
Today, of course, he was right.
Khao San Road, Thailand, 2013