I Miss River Phoenix

I know you look at me and think that I probably have the most sophisticated taste in movies EVER. You probably think that I learned to read by seeing French movies with subtitles, that I can quote early Woody Allen films verbatim, and that my godfather is Akira Kurosawa.

Shockingly, my cinematic tastes are surprisingly mainstream. Sure, I like to see indies like The Red Violin and The Crying Game because hello, I’m cultured, but my two all time favorite movies are Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and Stand By Me.

River Phoenix Stand By Me

Stand By Me. I first saw the movie when I was in second grade at me friend Noelle’s house. Her mom had rented it for us not realizing it was, gasp, Rated R! There was swearing and a dead body. Hello, heaven!

Through the years I saw the movie over and over. I watched it one time with my father who became obsessed. “That’s how we were!” he exclaimed. “We’d go off for hours and camp and hang out!”

And yes, my father also liked cherry-flavored Pez.


Stand By Me is so. f—ing. good. I hate to swear (ha!) but it really is. It makes me laugh, cry, and rips my heart out. Especially since it’s just a taste of how amazing River Phoenix was at such a young age. The movie was released in 1986, the year Phoenix turned 16, so he was probably 15 when he filmed it. 15! All of the actors were young and insanely good in it–even Corey Feldman (WHAT a waste.)–but it’s especially poignant to observe Phoenix because of his own tragic path.

Stand By Me, as you recall, follows four friends (Phoenix, Feldman, Wil Wheaton and a super adorable and chubby Jerry O’Connell) in Oregon searching for a dead body. Even though they all live in the same town, they come from different backgrounds. Gordie (Wheaton) hails from a good family while Chris (Phoenix) and Teddy (Feldman) come from the wrong side of the tracks. Vern (O’Connell) is the lovable sidekick. As they go on their adventure, they realize different things about themselves. Wow, that’s a really perceptive sentence I wrote!

In the off chance you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to tell you what happens, but I will say this. River Phoenix will break your heart in a completely unsentimental and primal way. And that’s why his death on Halloween 20 years ago STILL upsets me. This was in pre-TMZ, pre-Internet days. I honest to God remember it happening. He collapsed outside the club The Viper Room in the early morning hours of October 31, 1993. He was pronounced dead at 1:51AM. The cause was drug-induced heart failure. He was 23.

The following week my friend Beth and I rented the movie My Own Private Idaho which starred Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. We loved it because it seemed like the cool thing to do, but seeing how it was about a couple of gay hustlers out West I am sure it went WAY over our suburban heads but we pretended we were hip enough to get it.

It’s been 20 years since River Phoenix died and I still get a twinge of sadness when I think of what he could have become. I feel like he would be a sort of Johnny Depp type, except less costumey. Who knows.

Anyway, now I want to rewatch Stand By Me.

Get ready to cry.



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