River boasted of losing his virginity to an eighteen year-old girl he met while making Stand by Me in early 1985. He told his parents and siblings of his intention to seduce her, so they erected a psychedelically painted tent in their back yard for the occasion. His ditzy mother described the ‘ceremony’ as a ‘beautiful experience’. Well, it might have been had he been 24 years old instead of just 14!
Before River hit the big time his family were members of a cult known as ‘Hookers for Jesus’, a sexually oriented group of drug addicts, prostitutes and no-hopers whose leader advocated and practiced group sex and spouse-swapping while indulging in pornography. One of the cult’s chief beliefs held that Jesus preached about sharing one’s wife with other men as a sure-fire ticket into heaven. I never heard that one in Sunday school!
River and his Stand by Me co-star Corey Feldman (another hophead) reminisced about enjoying a few joints during the making of the picture. Before long they were into snorting cocaine as well, although Phoenix told interviewers that drug-taking was not important to him. ‘I’ve tried marijuana a few times’, he dissembled, ‘but I didn’t like it.’ Like most drug-users he lied through his back teeth whenever it suited him.
‘It’s clear he’s been loved by his parents who are people who have been able to maintain what was good and pure about the 60s – morality without the garbage’, waxed his easily impressed director Rob Reiner. ‘…garbage without the morality’ would be closer to the truth. The boy’s handlers, you see, were forever claiming that he read his Bible daily and abstained from sex, alcohol and drugs. According to his minders he didn’t even eat meat.
His siblings were as oddly named as he. Joaquin, who would go on to star in Gladiator as Emperor Commodus, was christened Leaf. Then there was Liberty Butterfly, Summer Joy and Rainbow, also known as Rain Joan of Arc. The family surname, before his mother (Heart) changed it to Phoenix, was Bottom. So the future ‘saviour of mankind’, as Mum once referred to her beloved bread-winner in an interview, was himself saved from being saddled with the rather muddy sobriquet of River Bottom.
He was born in Oregon, but the family moved to South America with the cult for a few years, before returning to California in 1977. Heart encouraged all her children to seek acting jobs (it beat having to work for a living herself), and before long little River was pretty much supporting the entire family. He had charisma in spades, girls adored him, and he was a naturally fine actor. In fact, he had the lot. Then, with the whole world at his feet – he went and blew it.
On 31 October 1993 he took his girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis, to Johnny Depp’s Los Angeles club, the Viper Room. Sometime during the evening he slipped off to the bathroom to score, and score he did – a lethal mixture of cocaine and morphine. Shortly afterwards he staggered into the street outside and pitched face-first onto the sidewalk. He died before medics could arrive. The next day a photographer broke into the funeral home, rearranged his corpse, took a picture of it, and sold the negative to the National Enquirer.
Prior to his death River Phoenix expressed interest in two films, The Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse. James Cameron said later that he always had the young man in mind for the lead in Titanic. As luck would have it Leonardo DiCaprio wound up getting all three roles. Titanic made him a superstar.
Four years before his actual demise River almost died in a dealer’s apartment after purchasing some speed from the man and shooting up on the spot. The young actor passed out and was only saved by the experienced dealer and his associate packing his genitals in ice to get his heart beating again! Paul Petersen, founder of a therapy school for former child actors, had this to say about the Phoenix family: ‘They were living a lie; they can’t possibly have River Phoenix in trouble with a drug problem. He doesn’t even eat meat. Well, he doesn’t eat anything now’.