AN EYE ON THE PRIVATE RIVER PHOENIX
THE YOUNG ACTOR GOES PUBLIC ABOUT "MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO," IN WHICH HE PLAYS A NARCOLEPTIC PROSTITUTE.
by Steven Rea, Inquirer Staff Writer
River Phoenix is wearing an apron, a white cap and an impish smile. He's scrubbing the tub, buffing the floors, sashaying to the snappy rhythms of a '30s dance tune. He's the little Dutch Boy, and there's a naked john watching him.
That's My Own Private Idaho.
In his own private hotel room - not a suite, just a room - at 12:30 in the afternoon on Park Avenue, River Phoenix is wearing a T-shirt ("Burning Down the House," it says), black polyester pants and Beatle boots. He's just waked up - a phone call from the lobby and MTV (left on overnight) combining to raise him from his slumber.
His blond hair is messy, his blue eyes sleepy and he's got this peach-fuzz number going under his nose.
The 21-year-old actor still looks the part of Mike Waters, the narcoleptic male prostitute from Portland, Ore., in Gus Van Sant's vigorous, all-over-the-map road movie, My Own Private Idaho.
The film, which opens Friday at the Ritz Five, co-stars fellow young thespian Keanu Reeves - as Scott Favor, a rich kid slumming with the street hustlers and turning a few tricks himself.
This is not your usual teen-throb movie role, and teen throbs Phoenix and Reeves - who have a love scene by a campfire, and a comedic coitus interruptus in an abandoned hotel - turn in the performances of their careers.
Phoenix, especially, is riveting. Last month, he won the Venice Film Festival's best-actor award for his work as Mike.
"It's not that he dares to play a hustler - lots of actors would be up for such a 'stretch,' " says critic Donald Lyons in Film Comment, "but that he dives so deep into, specifically, Mike. . . . If James Dean did anything really new in East of Eden, he used a looseness of limb, a fidgety floppiness, to signal sensitivity. Sliding onto various horizontals, balling himself into armadillo crouches, shivering hunched on streetcorners, Phoenix takes Dean's arithmetic into a dimension of calculus."
River Phoenix likes that line, though he's not sure what it means exactly.
"I like the idea of taking someone's good arithmetic and turning it into calculus, I like that idea," he says. "But I've never even seen one of James Dean's movies. . . . If anything, if someone out there were in a match with Dean, someone like Brad Pitt (the hitchhiker in Thelma & Louise) looks just like the guy. If you're talking about outward aesthetic and all that. . . ."
Nonetheless, you tell him, there is a certain way that he moves his body, as if he's trying to fold himself into a tiny box, that recalls Dean in East of Eden.
"I should see it," Phoenix says. "I should see some of his films. I should, but in a way I just don't want to spoil it, you know? I don't want to let too much information into my head. I like the idea that the only Brando film I've seen is Streetcar Named Desire. . . . One day I'll see (some of these films) but I have to do a few more movies before I start getting involved in past things, because it probably can influence you very heavily."
In fact, Phoenix doesn't see too many current movies, either.
"It's self-preservation," he explains. "I just don't want to get jaded with the industry. I want to keep it more of a personal experience. I don't know how healthy it is to have too much information."
Phoenix was born in 1970 in eastern Oregon, not far from the barren stretch of road that's one of Idaho's key images (truth in advertising: My Own Private East Oregon). His parents, John and Arlyn, were itinerant farm workers, but soon after River's birth they packed up and made for Venezuela, where they joined Children of God, a group of born-again Christians. River's four sibs are Leaf, Liberty, Rainbow and Summer - and he's taken a lot of ribbing in the press for his hippie-dippie name. ("They always make some dumb river pun," he gripes, scanning the new Rolling Stone fashion spread he posed for, with its headline, "Let It Flow.")
Toward the end of the decade, the Phoenixes moved back to the States, settling near Los Angeles, where River had his first heavy-dose exposure to movies and TV. He still lives with his family, which divides its time between Southern California and Gainesville, Fla., where the Phoenixes have a ranch full of "gators and dogs."
Phoenix made his first film, the teen sci-fi comedy Explorers, when he was 14. My Own Private Idaho is his 10th. In between, he's done coming-of-agers (A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon), dysfunctional family dramas (The Mosquito Coast, Running on Empty), a big action-adventure (young Indiana Jones in the opening segment of The Temple of Doom) and the black comedy I Love You to Death. He's worked with directors Steven Spielberg, Rob Reiner (Stand By Me), Nancy Savoca (the forthcoming Dogfight), Lawrence Kasdan, Peter Weir and Sidney Lumet. He's acted opposite William Hurt, Harrison Ford, Sidney Poitier, Christine Lahti and Kevin Kline.
It was early 1989, while they were in Tacoma, Wash., working on Kasdan's I Love You to Death, that Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho script found its way to Phoenix and Reeves. Phoenix says he had no reluctance about doing the film, despite its strong homosexual themes.
"Not after I met Gus," he explains. "Up until that point I always have reservations, until I meet the director.
"Drugstore Cowboy had just come out when I got the script, so I wasn't familiar with his work. . . . Lawrence Kasdan told me, 'Yeah, this guy Van Sant, I hear he's pretty good.' So I read it right away and I liked it, and then I saw Mala Noche and then I saw Drugstore, and I loved them both. I thought the performances, the whole feel of Drugstore was great."
Then it was just a matter of coordinating schedules. Shooting began in Portland last year, with James Russo, William Richert, Chiara Caselli, Grace Zabriskie and Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, on board. For a time, until things got too crazy for Phoenix, many of the cast and crew lived in Van Sant's big Tudor house in Portland Heights. The director, who had had his own band, and Phoenix, who still has his (Aleka's Attic, which has a track on last year's Tame Yourself compilation) jammed.
"It was a great release, after a hard day's work, after dailies and all that. Keanu and I would play with Gus and Flea, who's a great bassist."
One of My Own Private Idaho's pivotal scenes - if not the pivotal scene - takes place in the dark of night, around a campfire in the middle of big-sky country. In it, Phoenix's Mike confesses his love, and longing, for the aloof Scott. In a few awkward exchanges, Phoenix projects a profound pain and loneliness - it's an amazing moment.
"River created the campfire scene," Van Sant reports. "He transformed that scene into what it is. The way it was originally written, it was pretty much innocuous: Mike makes a pass at Scott very routinely because he's bored, he's in the desert. . . . He wrote all that stuff. He wrote the stuff like, 'I really want to kiss you, man.' He created that.
"River wanted to make that scene the main scene in the movie, which he did. And he wanted to make that scene the point where the two characters come the closest, the point where you understand the most about his character. . . ."
Phoenix, who keeps - "and loses," he jokes - piles of notes when he's working, says that he always writes parallel scenes for his characters. "It's my own stream-of-consciousness, and this just happened to be one that was more than actor notes. Then Keanu and I refined it, worked on it . . . but it was all done quickly. It was something I wrote down a night, two nights, before, and then I showed it to Keanu and Gus. . . . And Gus kept the whole thing. He didn't pare it down. It's a long scene."
Phoenix and Reeves are good friends. They met when Phoenix's girlfriend, Martha Plimpton, starred opposite Reeves in Parenthood. Then they teamed for I Love You to Death.
Their friendship, says the actor, helped "chemistry-wise." And neither of them, he says, felt weird about doing the gay scenes. "Nah, not at all."
But Phoenix does say that their approach to acting is different.
"You can never quite explain or understand, even if someone wants you to, the inside of their mind and what their secret recipe is. But I think Keanu has more of a theater base (than I do). I just have a more abstract place that I go to, that hasn't really been defined traditionally. . . . I think he probably uses things in his life. I don't know exactly, but I think that he has life references that he draws on, whereas that's my big no-no, I don't ever do that.
"I assimilate everything."
To that end, in preparation for My Own Private Idaho, Phoenix hung out with Portland street hustlers, interviewed narcoleptics and immersed himself in John Rechy's City of Night, the 1963 novel about male prostitutes and drag queens.
Now, he's getting into computers: In his next movie, Sneakers, he plays a ''new-wave computer guy." Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley and Dan Aykroyd also star, and Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams) is set to direct. "It's kind of a caper about these computer hackers hired by government agencies to break into different high-security systems and get information."
It is, in other words, a return to the Hollywood mainstream. But Phoenix is returning with a new image, and a new respect for his talents as an actor. Like Matt Dillon's work in Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, critics are calling Phoenix's performance in Idaho a breakthrough.
As he does with the James Dean comparisons, Phoenix - holed up in his hotel, plucking Captain Beefheart blues riffs on his Yamaha six-string - shrugs off the breakthrough stuff.
"It's been a while," he concedes, "since I've really done anything that has had, like, substance. . . . But as far as my opinion, as far as ability proven, I already achieved that kind of realism in Running on Empty. So to me, it's just a different kind of movie, and I guess you grow up and stuff.
"It's nice if they think that," he adds, smiling. "But I don't feel like I'm all that better than I ever was."