Monday, 11 April 2011

The Thing Called Love

I joined up to Lovefilm the other week in the hope that I can catch up on all of the films I keep missing at the cinema (and ones that I never got round to watching throughout the years). One film that has been on my list of ‘must sees’ for about 17 years now (hasn’t taken me long then to get around to actually watching it) is ‘The Thing Called Love’ and seeing as I use this blog to talk a lot about Pop Culture I’m going to indulge my inner teenager and revisit a little River Phoenix fascination, who was one of the most captivating pop culture icons of my generation (in my opinion).

Any River Phoenix fan will know that ‘The Thing Called Love’ was his last completed film before he died (in 1993 for anyone not in the know) and it was with interest that I watched it now, all these years later. I have to admit in all of his later films I tend to look out for signs that he was doing drugs, which probably sounds morbid. I’m no drugs expert – I’ve never touched any, and have never had any desire to, but I’ve been around people who have taken them so I’m talking from experience of being a bystander. I remember working with a guy who was very ‘cute’ and fresh faced. I knew he dabbled in ‘soft drugs’ but after about a year of knowing him I realised from overhead conversations on nights out that he’d started dabbling in cocaine and for me it was soon written all over his face. It was a very subtle transformation but his features ‘hardened’ and his expression had a subtle shadow of darkness that aged his youthful glow. Cocaine users might tell me that I’m talking rubbish but it’s an image that stayed with me.

I remember seeing stills of Phoenix in the press from the set of ‘The Thing Called Love’ and I found them unsettling as he had a really dark look about him (and it wasn’t just because he had dyed his hair darker for the role) This was maybe why I avoided watching it at the time (I was about 13/14 when the film came out). Watching it now I definitely think he looks older than his 23 years, which is weird for such a previous ‘fresh faced’ actor who usually passed for a lot younger than his actual age.

In the film his face has a sort of hollow look about it but then the character he plays is dark and broody and Phoenix was well known for immersing himself completely in his roles so maybe he just successfully ‘transformed’ into the character. His haunting vulnerability still shines through the arrogance of the character, particularly in the scene where he confesses to Miranda (Samantha Mathis’ character) that he wanted to call her but was too scared.

The thing that also struck me about him in this film is how completely at home he looks when he’s singing and playing the guitar and it’s interesting when reading about his life that many people talk about how music was his true passion (he played in a band called Aleka’s Attic and had started touring with them seriously in his early 20s). Watching him sing country songs also draws inevitable comparisons to his brother, Joaquin’s, role as Johnny Cash in 'Walk the Line'. It makes me wonder if Joaquin accepted the role of Cash as an ode to River’s part in this film--River plays a fictional country singer, not Johnny Cash--- (I have to say that Joaquin pulls off the whole moody and broody thing with much more intensity).

River has mesmerising contradictions about him in this film as there is something
very feminine about some of his characteristics and features one minute, then in the next scene he will be completely masculine and arrogant. There have been many speculations about Phoenix’s sexuality (particularly as he apparently did some method acting in order to get into his role of a gay hustler in My Own Private Idaho) and it wouldn’t surprise me if he broke many a male and female’s heart. There appears to be so many aspects of each gender in his energy that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was bi (and possibly made any guy who met him suspect the same about themselves!).

I recently watched some interviews with him on Youtube in the run up to the 1989 Oscars when he was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his role as Danny in ‘Running on Empty’ (great film that no one else I know seems to have watched – go and watch it!). There is some great YouTube footage where he is at a press conference standing in a wooly jumper (the kind your gran would knit you) and just looks like a fish out of water; totally unassuming, awkward and...normal. A million miles away from the slick robotic Zac Effrons of today.

Even on the red carpet on the walk into the Oscars he has jaw length bleached blonde hair which just looks so 90s grunge and cool. And Martha Plimpton, his girlfriend of the time, is larking around behind him sporting what looks like a semi skin-head hairdo and some white ensemble that could easily pass for a nightdress. This made me nostalgic for times when actors like that were our role models (ok, so Phoenix overdosing on drugs was not a good role model example) but here were 2 young people turning up at a massive Oscars ceremony in LA looking like...2 young people having a good time and not giving a sh** about what the establishment thought. Another clip I watched of him walking up the red carpet to a film premiere, dressed in a green t-shirt and again sporting long bleached blonde hair, made him look more of a grunge musician than an actor.

He genuinely came across as not caring about any of the fame that came with his acting – maybe because moving into acting was never his conscious choice? Everything written about him suggests that it was his parents, particularly his mother, who pushed him down the road of acting and once ‘there’ he felt pressurised to keep going in order to support the family with his wages.

There’s a lot of speculation about his death, suspicions, accusations and conspiracy theories. I stumbled across some really mind bending conspiracy theories where some people reckon River was subjected to mind control experimentation during his time in the Children of God Cult when he was a kid and that he had started to remember things people didn’t want to get talked about in the press so someone spiked him with a toxic cocktail of drugs.

Weirdly enough there are even wackier conspiracy theories about Kurt Cobain being subjected to mind control experiments also when he spent time in his mum’s mental institution when he was a kid. And the article then draws further connections to Gus Van Sant being part of some underground establishment mind control experimentation (it talks about his film My Own Private Idaho being based on Cobain’s life -before his fame-as Cobain was apparently a gay hustler and had narcolepsy. And Narcolepsy apparently is a symptom of being subjected to mind control experiments in infancy and so on).....I find the theories fascinating, though I don’t buy into them, but in my earlier blog entry titled ‘Cult’ I had jokingly wondered if the connections between said people (and I threw Michael Stipe into the mix) does have some sinister undertone... Matt Damon is mentioned in one of the conspiracers article so if he dies any time soon under suspicious circumstances maybe we should start taking note...

I really don’t think there is any mystery about River’s death that night. He was heavily into the music scene where he was probably living a bit of a rock and roll lifestyle and at the same time struggling with the perfect poster boy image the media was projecting into the public realm. It’s possible to be passionate about the environment, be a vegan and care about important issues, and be a sweet person, as well as being into hard drugs. There’s quotes where he himself talked about how anyone can be an addict (not just your stereotypical bum on the street) and how he wished he wasn’t ‘so conscious’.

It’s reported on the night he died that he voluntarily took a ‘speed ball’ containing fatal levels of a bad mix of drugs. Other reports say there was a spate of people getting ‘spiked’ in the club that night with bad drugs. I don’t believe that night was the first time he dabbled. I reckon he was just unlucky and to me it’s just an example of the Russian roulette you play if you’re going to take heavy drugs.

His mother reckons he made a deal with God to stay on the earth for only 23 years. It’s reported that she said she was in labour with him for over 3 days and she had the feeling that he really didn’t want to be born and she imagined he was bargaining with God saying ok, I’ll come down for a little while, 5 years....etc. until they reached a number they agreed on. She saw him as being some ‘missionary’ to deliver some important message to the world. What an expectation to live up to.

I reckon whatever message he might have wanted to deliver came out a little distorted... as anyone’s would when the media is taking control of your words. But ultimately for me he brought a refreshing naive honesty into ‘Hollywood’ films and a uniqueness that has yet to be matched on screen. I was at a party on Saturday night and got talking to a female around my age and she told me she remembered the week he died because one of her friends was found curled up on the floor outside their class unable to speak. She said such was her grief that they thought a family member had died. An extreme example of the spell he cast upon his fans...

But go and watch his films and I defy you to remain untouched.


  1. Fascinating post, Vikki. Have to say I could see River Phoenix's attraction - even when he played the young Indianna Jones at the beginning of one of those films. But I didn't know about his background.

  2. He had an interesting life, albeit a short one!

  3. What an interesting post you've written. I watched "The thing called love" tonight, not for the first time though..Last time I saw it was many years ago and by then I was a bit 'in love' with River and saw all his movies. Even now, there is just something about him and his life that so totally fascinates me. But I agree with you, in this movie he seems much darker than in his earlier movies, and it seems clear to me he was struggling with something during that time. Or maybe, like you said, he was getting into he's role so completely. But there was something about he's body language as well, that seemed so different.. And also, the expressions in his face.. is the one you get when you are on, or have been using a lot of drugs. I know cause I've seen that in friends too. I know exactly what you mean by someones feature getting 'hardened'. It's sad to see.

    When I was about 22 back in the end of the 90's, I was really into River and I read everything i could find about him. I was studying acting here in Sweden, and finally I went to Hollywood to study there and of course I went to see Viper room. One day, I met one of Rivers closest friends. He was a dear friend to the whole family and had been so during Rivers whole life. He told me so many things. That was very special.

    It' strange.. I haven't thought much of him since then back in the 90's, but a while ago I found out his last movie "Dark blood" has been released, and I started reading about him, and got stuck, again.. There is just something about him that is so rare, so pure and real.. far away from all the plastic people in Hollywood. I don't think there ever will be someone like him. He was so different, like he had this old soul in him, ful of wisdom. He was so beautiful in every way..

    Thanks for writing this interesting post, I really enjoyed it.

    1. Hi! Thanks so much for reading and leaving a comment on my blog - love it when random strangers take the time to leave some words. That must have been really fascinating getting the opportunity to talk to one of River's friends. I wrote this post so long ago I'd forgotten everything I'd written so it was nice to re-visit the memories again too. He definitely left a mark on the world.

  4. Okay, So tonight marks the death of him, but what is making me frustrated is people posting all these pics of his final pictures alive of that night, but he has his normal blonde longer hair in them! Wasn't he still filming and had the short black hair? Call me crazy, but those aren't his last pictures alive! Sorry I had to rant about it.

  5. I loved your post very honest and true to its self. I did notice his face expressions were a little off and even when he proposed to mirando his voice wasn't in tact. I fell in love with him despite that all. His eyes were a dagger to my soul that even though he showed signs of having a facial disorder I just loved his confidence and his dark look. There were some scenes I also thought as scary like when he was arguing with mirando about his shirt I honestly thought he was going to hit her. I'm a 24 year that is completely in love with this 80s guy. There was a part of an interview that mirando had that got me into tears. She said that as she gets older river will always be 23 years old.

    1. You were such a beautiful soul River.