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The world has a thing for martyrs. People treat it like a rite of passage if you make it into the 27 Club with Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. But River Phoenix never even got to see his 27th year.

Phoenix died from a drug overdose on Halloween when he was only 23. His death was, and remains to be, so sensationalized that you can even watch the guys at Buzzfeed Unsolved try to contact his ghost. National news stations aired the 911 call that his brother Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker,” “Her”) made from the Viper Room, the club owned by Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Edward Scissorhands”) where River had collapsed. Long before social media, River’s life and death were treated like a sideshow attraction between commercials.

River was a reluctant icon. He hated his own celebrity (and the idea of celebrity at all), but he used it as a platform for his activism that could only be compared to the likes of Jane Fonda (“Klute,” “Grace and Frankie”) or Marlon Brando (“Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Godfather”). He spoke openly and passionately about animal rights and environmentalism in a time before there was a vegan option on every menu. Maybe he knew that PETA booked him because of his name as the precocious 17-year-old nominated for an Oscar, but he swallowed his pride because it was what he believed in.

Humility isn’t always included in definitions of masculinity. River could have performed the hypermasculinity of contemporary stars like Arnold Schwarzenneger, Sylvester Stallone, Patrick Swayze or Tom Cruise, but he didn’t. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t masculine; he could play a young Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” with all the heroism we knew from the action star, but with this added fragility that’s difficult to achieve in a short, ten-minute cameo. River brought an intense, overwhelming amount of vulnerability that would underscore, rather than negate, his strength in each and every one of his roles. He made male tenderness iconic.

“Stand by Me,” based on the Stephen King novella “The Body,” is meant to be an ensemble film, but River’s performance as a tough but well-meaning kid from a dysfunctional family lit him up on everyone’s radar. The story started the “You wanna see a dead body?” trope as a group of middle school boys search for a local boy’s corpse in 1959. River may not be what most people remember most about the movie; it’s more recognizable as a clear influence of friendship-centered adventures like “The Sandlot” or “Stranger Things,” and as a parallel to other adjacent films like “The Goonies” or (of course, because of its source material) “IT.” Director Rob Reiner (“When Harry Met Sally”) captures the playfulness and devastation of childhood through the image of some boys walking down railroad tracks together with the dramatic irony of their knowledge that it was a train that killed the boy they’re looking for. 

At its core, “Stand by Me” is about love. And while the other cast members did an amazing job, there’s just nothing that you can compare to River’s delivery of the line: “I just wish I could go someplace where nobody knows me.” He admitted to using fake tears in the scene (he was only 15 years old and it was his first major role in a feature film), but you believe it when he says it. Maybe it’s that boyishness that had everyone magnetized to the screen. He was a kid in 1986 pretending he was in 1959, and you wonder if he was thinking of himself as his father, if this spoke to that feeling when you first see your father cry, when death stares you in the face, when, for the first time, you really, truly understand empathy.

I can’t help but wonder if “Stand by Me” was River’s way of reckoning with his childhood in the same way it is for everyone who watches the film. River was born to hippies who joined the Children of God cult when he was three. The cult was known for its interpretation of God’s love through sex, and particularly shared sex partners; cult members were coerced to sleep with recruits in order to convert them. Many cases of childhood sexual abuse have been reported by ex-members. It’s reported by Vanity Fair and supported by “Stand by Me” co-star Corey Feldman (“The Goonies”) that River was a victim of child sexual abuse. Joaquin Phoenix has since insisted that River’s confession to Details magazine was a joke made “because he was so tired of being asked ridiculous questions by the press.” 

We can’t know if River was a victim of abuse. It is a fact, though, that as the firstborn son of a family of seven, he often took his early acting jobs in order to provide for his family. It is a fact that the Children of God was a cult that attracted sex offenders, and even if River didn’t experience it firsthand, it’s not unlikely that he may have witnessed some of it. When his family left the cult, they left their given surname of the Arlyns behind and renamed themselves after the phoenix. In interviews, both River and Joaquin have looked fondly on their family life, describing a late-’60s openness and an early-’70s closeness that kept them together after whatever may have happened while they were in the cult.

That openness is most apparent in “My Own Private Idaho.” Based loosely on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” and “Henry V,” River plays Mike, a narcoleptic male prostitute hopelessly in love with his best friend Scott (Keanu Reeves, “John Wick”). Directed by Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”), it quickly became a cult classic and was inducted into the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s. River completely holds his own acting toe-to-toe with arguably the biggest action star of the ’90s. It’s like seeing fireworks for the first time: the thump hitting deep in your chest, the colors lighting up an otherwise dark night, and then that strange feeling when the show ends and you’re left with silence. 

And that’s without the knowledge that River himself wrote the iconic campfire scene where Mike confesses his love to Scott. Mike tries to talk about their friendship, asks what he means to Scott; Scott is confused, and maybe a bit put off. 

“I only have sex with a guy for money. And two guys can’t love each other,” Scott says.

Mike stutters out a noncommittal response, eventually admitting, “I love you and you don’t pay me. I really wanna kiss you, man.” 

Scott doesn’t say anything. Mike curls in on himself, hugging his knees until Scott holds him and a wolf howls in the distance.

It’s complete, utter, unguarded love. It frames the film in a completely different light than the original script. The special features on the Blu-Ray edition of the film feature an interview between filmmaker Todd Haynes (“Carol”) and Gus Van Sant, where the former says, “Before the scene, it’s almost like the kids are all victims of homosexuality. There’s the scene where they all sit around telling their stories of being raped and abused. It’s not until River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves sit around the campfire that you see one of the hustlers being gay in an all natural environment, with no money changing hands.” In a decade when “Will and Grace” was the biggest source of gay representation, River was a revolutionary.

In an interview with his co-star, River said, “Just think, Keanu. In a hundred years someone will watch this movie and still find a reason to talk about us.” River was so full of radical love for all life. 

He wasn’t just some kid getting drunk at a pride parade — he actively sought to protect whomever was in harm’s way. He wasn’t just a treehugger catching onto a fad — he drew a major target on himself when he said, “What is an environmentalist? I think we all just have a natural birthright to be so, it shouldn’t be a label. In fact, if the government has any qualms about it they should put it in perspective of maybe the defense budget. This is defense, defense for our life support system,” all on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1990. 

He represented every joy and pain of Generation X like a spiritual sequel to “20th Century Women” that asks, “What happens to little boys who grow up in a world like this?” He expressed his masculinity by, in some ways, sacrificing it. He still inspires his brother 30 years after his death.

Every floppy-haired philosophy major in the audience at an alt-rock show wishes they were River Phoenix. They might not realize it if they’re not well-versed in film, but River had an incomparable presence — not just as a teen heartthrob or an activist or a musician or an actor, but as an icon. 

Maybe we wouldn’t care so much about him if he hadn’t died. Maybe he would’ve just become like other drug-addict-child-star-Gen-Xers like Drew Barrymore and Jason Bateman, growing up into inoffensive respectability. But we’re enamored with lost chances and stolen lives. Everyone loves a ghost story. 

Contributor Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at maryelzz@umich.edu.

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