River Phoenix: A Short Life was written by Brian J Robb and published in 1995. It's a rather short book but crammed with many black and white photographs of the doomed actor. You get an interesting (if hardly exhaustive) biography of Phoenix here and a reminder of the relatively few films he managed to make until his premature death from a drugs overdose at the age of just 23. He shot to fame with his sensitive performance in Rob Reiner's acclaimed eighties drama Stand By Me (a film that remains a cult favourite). Phoenix displayed a natural authority in Stand By Me that marked him out as one to watch and looked a bit like James Dean when he got older. He was though destined to join what Kurt Cobain's mother called 'the stupid club' - the apparently never ending list of celebrities who die young because of drug abuse. The actor had a famously eccentric family background you learn here (although anyone interested in the actor will doubtless know this already). He was born in 1970 and his parents were very flower power and New Age and met each other hitchhiking across America. They eventually joined a religious cult called the Children of God and relocated to South America for a time to work as missionaries. It was a fairly threadbare existence on the evidence supplied here and River was soon the family meal ticket when he became a child actor in commercials. This preassure was something he always felt and contributed to his troubles away from the limelight where he was far more wild and self destructive than anyone realised.
It's nice here to be reminded of his first film break in Joe Dante's 1985 Explorers - a film I remember watching growing up and enjoying. The original family surname was 'Bottom' but they changed it to Phoenix in the seventies. I think I'd probably prefer Phoenix myself too. The full title of their second child after River before the name change was Rain Joan of Arc Bottom. It makes you thankful really that your own parents were relatively sane. The book delves into the life of the subject but always feels like it is trying to be respectful and offer a celebration of the actor's short life and career rather than be too gossipy and tacky. One theme of the book is that Phoenix was on course to be a great Hollywood star for many years having made the move from child actor to more adult roles as successfully as most manage. I suppose he would possibly be like Brad Pitt or someone maybe if he was still alive today (and he'd be several years younger than Pitt too). The book asserts - and given his demise it's obviously true - that Phoenix had a 'double life'. He had an image as a non-Hollywood type and outsider, the child of bohemian parents. The clean living vegan (the Phoenix family were all vegans). In reality he always felt under severe preassure as the money making machine in the family and was a secret drug user.
The book makes a few claims that may or may not be true. His drink was spike with liquid GHB the night of his death in 1993 and that he was bisexual. Things like this. These speculations probably add to the interest the reader might have in the book but there probably isn't an awful lot here that you didn't already know apart from these subjective theories. I think the fact that the book is part visual biography adds greatly to the appeal and with text alone this probably wouldn't have been worth going out your way to buy (it's about 160 pages). I'm not obsessed with River Phoenix but I do love Stand By Me and have always been interested in his story because it's so sad. There are publicity stills from most of his films here and they are of a high standard and enjoyable to flip through. Phoenix famously played the young Indy in the prologue to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and was excellent in this short sequence. The pictures from this are nice but rather poignant. He's the young Indiana Jones in a blockbuster for Steven Spielberg and on the cusp of becoming a huge star (there is even talk of him taking over from Harrison Ford in a young Indy spin-off series of films) and yet a few years later he's dying of a drugs overdose on a pavement outside a Hollywood nightclub.
The book is split into ten chapters and there are also some personal family photographs of the actor to go with the film stills. There are a few errors here and there I noticed in the text regarding the films but these are not too frequent. The book provides a basic biography of Phoenix that is always interesting to read through although this is almost as much a pictorial documentary as a biography. There isn't an awful lot to say River Phoenix because his life was so short but you do learn more about how troubled he was, his difficult relationship with his father, and his secret binges on drugs and chocolate (the suggestion is that he had an eating disorder). There seems to have a scrabble over his money when he died too. How much he left was never disclosed but his parents were by all accounts pretty good at running up debts. The book is obviously out of date and I've no idea how close River's brother Joaquin, who is of course a famous Hollywood actor himself now, is to his parents. River Phoenix: A Short Life is an interesting and attractive book that tells an inevitably sad story. The last image of the actor in Stand By Me, is, as the book notes, especially poignant now with the knowledge of what happened him in the end. At the time of writing you can this used for under a fiver. The one new copy was going for £54 last time I checked!