News Column

Florence Morning News, S.C., Matt Tate column

November 7, 2013


Nov. 07--He only had 24 acting credits to his name, but 20 years ago last week, 23-year-old River Phoenix died outside L.A.'s storied Viper Club, minutes before he was set to join Johnny Depp and Flea on stage for a jam session. Along with him, a meteoric rise to stardom that had been built on a wholesome, granola image incongruently collapsed in heroin-induced seizures on that Hollywood boulevard.

Phoenix wasn't like all the other stars of his time. He and his family grew up in 40 different homes in 20 years over several continents. He was well-traveled, if not necessarily well-educated. Producers were often shocked by his lack of tangible knowledge. His most lasting films weren't box office smashes, but in performances like 1986's "Stand by Me" and 1988's "Running on Empty," which earned him an Oscar nomination for embodying the conflicted son of American fugitives, audiences saw an actor without artifice and that added to his likability.

When guys like Phoenix, James Dean and Heath Ledger die young, they are eternalized as youthful, so it is easy to build a legacy sometimes more meaningful than the sum of its relatively few parts.

But Phoenix was clearly a signpost for some of the finest actors of today -- guys like Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Jared Leto -- all cause-oriented stars who never shied from dirtying their pretty faces in challenging roles. They embraced Phoenix's penchant for grittier roles, and his near-total immersion in characters.

His life off-screen, complete with a debilitating drug addiction only known by his closest confidants, seemed much more in line with that of his side gig as a musician.

The loss of a musician is, of course, tragic, but what might be more heartrending is that it is somewhat expected, even though the rock and movie star lifestyles mirror each other in many perilous ways. Plenty of music publications throughout the years have had obits on hand for those musicians bent on a destructive path. The decadence, the indulgence, the travel -- there are pitfalls a plenty in life on the road.

Even if they do manage to survive, the life of musician is still short. Musicians probably have only about 10 years in which they work at the height of their prowess. Think about the great ones: How long were they considered great to anyone outside their core fanbase? Anything more than a decade is a rarity. After that they are seen as rote characterizations emulating past glories or they are put out to pasture singing American standards every holiday season. Pop culture quickly ages musicians out of their respective scenes.

Movie stars? Their skills are thought to preserve, adapt and sometimes even grow. Robert Redford, 77, is said to have delivered an Oscar-worthy performance performer in this fall's "All is Lost." Audiences first meet actors when they're youthful -- not too young or they suffer from "What happened to the kid from 'Jerry Maguire?'" syndrome. But we see them age, often graciously, on screen. The great actors rarely waver in their ability to continually engage audiences.

Phoenix had that. He was the rare star who felt like, well, us. And it's why today whether he was apart of the glitzy Hollywood scene, jamming away with his friends or just living quietly on a commune, he'd be remembered just the same.

Matt Tate is the news editor at the Morning News. Contact him at 843-317-7284 or by email at


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