A piece I wrote about My Own Private Idaho and River Phoenix, the greatest actor of his generation, who died twenty years ago tonight…
In 1990, Gus Van Sant was already the coolest man in American independent cinema. He’d followed his coruscating debut Mala Noce with Drugstore Cowboy, a smash-hit tale of pharmaceutical crime that won him powerful acolytes in Hollywood. Among them was 26-year-old heart-throb Keanu Reeves, star of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and incipient A-lister.
Van Sant had originally wanted to make his third movie, My Own Private Idaho, with real street hustlers. But something about the strange stiff eloquence of Bill and Ted’s valley-speak chimed with an idea he’d been toying with, to cannibalise the story of Henry IV for key scenes about a Shakespeare-spouting homeless gang. He picked up the phone and called Reeves’ agent. Keanu duly read the script, thought it “amazing” and agreed to do it – on condition that his buddy and fellow screen idol River Phoenix do it with him.
River’s rep, the formidable one-time Broadway showgirl Iris Burton, was rather less impressed. She stopped reading halfway down the first page, somewhere around the bit where her 20-year-old star client would be getting a blow-job off a john, and refused point blank to pass it on. Undaunted, Keanu zipped a copy into his overnight bag, got on his motorbike, and rode 979 miles south from Toronto to the Phoenix family ranch in Micanopy, Florida, to deliver the script in person.
Privately, River was dazzled by Idaho’s potential. “It was all I thought about once I’d read it,” he later admitted. “I couldn’t get it out of my head.” Still, it wasn’t until he and Keanu were motoring together down Santa Monica Boulevard a few months after his friend’s monster road trip, that River finally turned to him and said, “Okay, I’ll do it if you do it. I don’t do it if you won’t.” The pair shook hands; the deal was struck.
My Own Private Idaho is a road movie – the iconic image is of River and Keanu on a 1974 Norton Commando bike, channeling James Dean and Marlon Brando – but, like all great road movies, the real journey is interior. It’s really the story of a lost soul trying desperately to be found. River’s character Mike Waters is a narcoleptic hustler looking for his mother, a woman who exists only in scratchy Super-8 memories. Mike is so badly damaged by her abandoning of him as a child that he swoons to the ground in sleep whenever she comes to mind. Around his search winds a second thread. Scott Favor, the rebel son of Portland’s mayor – and Mike’s best friend – is Keanu doing Prince Hal from Henry IV.
“There’s not a lot in the film about sucking dick and getting fucked,” Keanu told a reporter visiting the Idaho set. “I think it’s more about family.” Still, there was enough sucking dick and getting fucked to make Idaho an enormous gamble for actors in his and River’s exalted position. In spite of Van Sant’s protestations to the contrary – “Idaho is an inch away from being a mainstream, commercial movie. Not a mile,” he raged, “It just shows you how stodgy, conservative and afraid Hollywood is today to even consider a project that isn’t Home Alone” – playing gay was still, in the early nineties, a very big deal.
Ask most people which Idaho scene moved them the most and stayed with them the longest and they’ll say the sequence when Mike and Scott sleep rough in a field after Scott’s bike breaks down. “You were seeing great acting by River, and also connected into that was our personal relationship, ” said Keanu, whom River called ‘Keeny’. In the half-light of a campfire, Mike finally plucks up the courage to tell his best friend that he is in love with him. It was an act of emotional bravery that kick-started a thousand real-life comings-out and cemented both young stars’ reputations as gay icons. After Idaho, River in particular was deluged with letters from gay and bisexual kids thanking him for speaking up for them, for understanding them, for making them feel like they weren’t alone.
The scene is literally pivotal, being both the moment when the two friends are closest and the moment when an unbridgeable gap opens up between them for the first time. And it was all River’s invention. Van Sant’s screenplay made no reference to Mike’s unrequited longing. In the original script, he’s just bored and a bit horny. River, though, decided it was his character’s main scene. He asked Van Sant if they could film it last, and if it would be okay if he had a go at rewriting it. “The character I wrote,” said Van Sant, “was blasé and noncommittal. River made him gay; he redeemed him with emotions.”
If the campfire scene gives Idaho its tender heart, the fantasy sequence where River and Keanu appear as gay porno mag cover-stars brought to life most aptly demonstrates its sense of humour. The production designers had a lot of fun putting Keanu in a cowboy hat with the tag ‘Homo on the Range’, and padding River’s loin-cloth and draping him over a rough-hewn cross.
Just before filming began, Van Sant bought himself a 1908 three-storey mansion in Portland. There was a sign on the back porch saying ‘Back door entry preferred’. Nine young cast and crew used it as a crash-pad during the shoot. It was a dorm, a frat-house, a family. They partied every night, jamming into the small hours in the garage: River on guitar, Keanu on bass; sleeping, finally, on futons. Most nights River would sit alone in an alcove on the second landing with his guitar, after everyone else had gone to bed, and play until his fingertips frayed.
There were parties, there was wine, and there were a lot of drugs. Idaho’s script supervisor Jane Goldsmith was a lone voice of protest: “I was getting down on them because of them using heroin,” she told Premiere magazine in 1998, “and they didn’t appreciate that. River would argue with me, but everyone else was just like, ‘Shut up’. Or they would just nod out.” William Reichart, who plays Idaho’s Falstaff character Bob Pigeon, and whom River brought onto the film, puts it thus: “There was a whole bunch of orphans up there, not only the street orphans but the actors themselves. These kids couldn’t take care of each other. They went to a place that was loaded with junkies. And they’re actors exploring characters. It’s like scientists that take their own drugs… They went into their roles as deeply as they could go.”
But Van Sant, who moved out of the house and into an apartment in the city centre for the duration of the shoot, has always maintained he knew nothing about heroin-use on his film. “I was encouraging people to understand the life, not live it,” the told an interviewer after River’s death. “I don’t know anything about shooting up in my house. I wasn’t party to it if it happened.”
Keanu Reeves is irresistible in My Own Private Idaho. He’s always best cast as a fish out of water, and puts in a career-making performance here as young man in conflict with his entire life. But the film indisputably belongs to River. Mike is someone who has been abandoned by everyone he loves, yet can still dream of a place where he might be happy. River shifts effortlessly between puckish wonderment, fragility and despair. It’s an extraordinarily instinctive portrayal that makes for exhilarating but painful viewing.
In 2010, actor James Franco (who appeared in Van Sant’s Milk), spent a month at his computer cutting 25 hours of Idaho rushes into My Own Private River, a hundred-minute love letter to the film and its tragic star. Often what’s left on the cutting room floor is inferior, he told The Paris Review. “But sometimes – as when they feature an actor like River Phoenix, the best of his generation giving his best performance – every scrap is gold.”
It’s impossible to watch My Own Private Idaho today and not be moved by River’s work. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that every time Mike slumps to the ground, it seems to be a rehearsal for River’s own terrible death under The Viper Room awning, just two years after the last shot of Idaho was safely in the can.
He died in the small hours of November 1st 1993, bucking like a drowning fish on the pavement outside his pal Johnny Depp’s black-painted nightclub on Sunset Boulevard, while his sister Rainbow lay on top of him trying desperately to hold him still and his brother Joaquin sobbed down the line to 911 in the nearest ’phone box. His friend and Idaho co-star, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea rode with him in the ambulance to Cedars-Sinai Hospital.
A candle-lit shrine – filled with heartfelt messages in scented inks about rivers of life and phoenixes rising from ashes – sprang up around a lamp-post on the Strip. Hundreds of thousands of shocked little girls around the world wept into their pillows. But it wasn’t just girls that mourned. Boys mourned. Grown-ups mourned. Hollywood mourned.
“You just turned the camera on and he would tell the truth,” said Rob Reiner, whose coming-of-age yarn Stand By Me first turned River into a phenomenon. But perhaps Peter Weir, who directed a 17-year-old River in The Mosquito Coast, put it best: “He was obviously going to be a movie star. People who know film – me, Harrison [Ford, the film’s star], my wife – could see that River had something else. When a big close-up of him would come on the screen, it was like when you were a kid and you went to a film and you couldn’t keep your eyes off a character. It’s something apart from the acting ability. Laurence Olivier never had what River had.”
After River died, journalist Tad Friend wrote of the ‘loneliness and anguish’ that ‘backlit the sadness’ in the characters he played. The day the L.A. toxicologist’s report was made public, Friend was visiting Van Sant in the house where the cast had lived for the duration of the shoot. The report stated that the 23-year-old star of Stand By Me, Running on Empty, The Mosquito Coast, My Own Private Idaho, and a handful of other films not nearly so good, had taken so much cocaine and heroin that it was impossible to tell which had killed him.
They stood in Van Sant’s basement edit suite, where blow-up stills of River were still tacked to the walls. “The main thing in film acting is something going on in the face,” said Van Sant softly, never taking his eyes off a huge close-up of his leading man. “And with the really good ones, it’s pain. You don’t read it as pain, but when you really look, it’s pain.”
Copyright Louise Brealey, 2012.
This piece first appeared in Another Man, Spring 2012 edition.
I can’t stop thinking about this poem from 1896.
Transfigured Nightby Richard DehmelTwo people are walking through a bare, cold wood;
the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze.
The moon moves along above tall oak trees,
there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance
to which the black, jagged tips reach up.
A woman’s voice speaks:
"I am carrying a child, and not by you.
I am walking here with you in a state of sin.
I have offended grievously against myself.
I despaired of happiness,
and yet I still felt a grievous longing
for life’s fullness, for a mother’s joys
and duties; and so I sinned,
and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex
to the embrace of a stranger,
and even thought myself blessed.
Now life has taken its revenge,
and I have met you, met you.”
She walks on, stumbling.
She looks up; the moon keeps pace.
Her dark gaze drowns in light.
A man’s voice speaks:
"Do not let the child you have conceived
be a burden on your soul.
Look, how brightly the universe shines!
Splendour falls on everything around,
you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,
but there is the glow of an inner warmth
from you in me, from me in you.
That warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child,
and you bear it me, begot by me.
You have transfused me with splendour,
you have made a child of me.”
He puts an arm about her strong hips.
Their breath embraces in the air.
Two people walk on through the high, bright night.(English Translation by Mary Whittall)
How stripping off to play Helen of Troy on the London stage changed the way I feel about my body
It’s October. It’s dusk. It’s the second week of rehearsals for The Trojan Women, a modern version of Euripides’ tragedy in which I’m greedily playing three different roles: Cassandra, the maddened seer (a teenager in red-and-white striped long-johns); Andromache, trophy widow of the city’s most decorated soldier; and Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand dicks”.
I’m standing in a dirty office in the old BBC training building on Marylebone High Street. There are dirty blue carpets on the floor and dirty great fluorescent tubes on the ceiling. There are six other people here. They’re all dressed; I’m in a bath towel that I’m about to let fall to the floor. Nobody knows yet, but I’m not wearing any knickers.
Yesterday I did this scene topless but kept my leggings on. I’ve never had so much eye contact in my life. Today, I’ve resolved to go the whole hog. As I wait for my cue, I feel an utterly primal feeling of fear and wrongness that seems literally to be coming from between my legs. Christopher Haydon, our director, is expecting me to wait until we get into the theatre before I disrobe completely, but I know if I do it too many times with my pants on, I’ll never be able to take them off. I just want to get it over with.
The towel drops. I don’t look down. I put my knickers on backwards. Afterwards we joke that where Chris was sitting, right in the line of fire, will be where I tell my dad to sit when he comes to the show. ‘Hi Dad,’ I wave at the plastic chair, sick to my stomach. ‘Hi.’
On the way home I text my friend Matthew from Morecambe and tell him what I did with my day. He texts back: “It’ll never be this bad again.” I don’t believe him, even for a second. I don’t feel relieved; I don’t feel brave; I feel like a sparrow that’s banged its head on the patio doors. But it turns out he’s right.
“I saw @louisebrealey’s pubes last night. The play was good too,” tweeted a critic from What’s On Stage magazine the day after Trojan Women opened. Although none of them have so far felt the need to share the experience on social media, a lot of other people besides this charming man have also seen my pubic hair in the past two weeks. In fact, more people have seen my pubic hair in the past two weeks than in the previous two decades combined.
When I first read Caroline Bird’s fierce, funny script and saw the stage direction: ‘Helen drops her towel; she is in no hurry to get dressed’, I felt a bit ill and wondered if the scene would have the same impact without the nudity. But Helen of Troy’s towel is not just a towel; it’s a gauntlet. She drops it to embarrass her mortal enemy; to show that – although her life’s on the line – she’s not going down without a fight. Crucially her nakedness also lets the audience see how bold, how beautiful she feels. It’s not about pubic hair. It’s about power.
Still. The idea of standing naked anywhere in public scared the shit out of me. The idea of standing naked in my own bedroom in front of someone who wants to have sex with me scared the shit out of me. The idea of standing naked in a theatre the size of a corner shop, five feet from the audience, whilst pretending to be Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman on the planet? That sounded like a very bad idea indeed.
“But you’re an actress!” said my best friend when I told her I was afraid. “Yes,” I said. “An actress, not a stripper.” I’ve been doing this for ten years and I’ve never even had to get down to my underwear. It’s not something you sign up for with your Equity card. (Although now I think about it, my bare buttocks were once pressed so hard against a very frosted glass door – in an awful thing with Martine McCutcheon – that the glass broke and my bum was, in both senses, cut.)
“But you’re slim!” she insisted. “You’ve nothing to worry about.” Ah. That old chestnut. Slim women don’t have insecurities about their bodies. Slim women don’t have cellulite or thread veins or knees that always seem to look grubby. Slim women aren’t allowed to be frightened about taking their clothes off in public. Because they are slim.
I have psoriasis. My belly and back sport red scaly patches, a bit like eczema. You can’t catch it. Loads of people have it. But it’s not pretty and it leaves a funny sort of leopard-print pattern on your skin when it deigns to go. From sixteen to eighteen I was covered in a crust from collarbone to calf. (It came back with a vengeance when I was homesick on my first telly job, a three-year contract with Casualty. The make-up artists on the show photographed it for their files. Desperate to leave, I went to see the man in charge and lifted up my top. I’m pretty sure that was the first time anyone had flashed him to get out of a job.)
Like thousands of other women – and thousands of men – I also have stretch marks. I grew four inches one summer holiday and the skin on my 13-year-old bottom neglected to keep pace. Ever since I’ve had white lines that circle the slopes of my thighs like terracettes. Normally I don’t give them a second thought. But normally I’m not naked in public.
In the BBC series Sherlock I play Molly Hooper, the awkward, besotted morgue mouse with the Christmas-present bow in her hair; not Irene Adler, the feline dominatrix with the slash of a red mouth and the flawless arse. (I almost got to stand in as Irene at the read-through for A Scandal In Belgravia; but on the big day Lara Pulver was free after all.) My point is that when you act on television, you’re obliged to think about how you look in objective terms. It saves time, and tears, because how they say you look is how they say you’re cast. So I learned very early on that I’m not “telly beautiful”. I’m “girl-next-door”. I’m “quirky”.
The theatre, though, is a different world. Actors pretend on stage, audiences pretend in their seats and, together, if everyone stops disbelieving hard enough for long enough, we might magic up something amazing. In the theatre I can be a nine year old on a swing; I can be a sex-mad teenager in platform heels; I can be from Sunderland.
In the theatre, the logic runs, I can be Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. My 69-year-old friend George, not realising we were doing an update of a Greek tragedy, tried to help: “It’ll be fine, you’ll be wearing a mask.”
In the end it was fine. I realised playing Helen of Troy was impossible, like playing the idea of a woman. So I ditched the surname. In my head, I’m just plain Helen.
Horror films scare me witless but I absolutely love them. It’s the same story with acting: I find it frightening but the fear makes me feel; it makes me feel alive. And while you’re screaming your head off, you’re definitely not dead. The prospect of standing in front of people with nothing on and feeling great about it was alien, horrific, and completely intoxicating.
I really wanted to know what it felt like to be that woman. Not the psoriatic sixteen year old who looked in the mirror and saw The Singing Detective. Not the apple-cheeked student who spent all three years at university with a jumper tied round her waist to hide her bum (they were the dark days of high-waisted jeans). And not the actress who, last week, finally put two books on cellulite in the recycling. Not her. Not me.
Last night an elderly audience member asked me after the show if I thought I’d given away something precious by letting people see my body. I didn’t know how to answer her, but it made me think. The fact is, I’ve gained way more than I’ve lost. I stand there every night, totally naked, with people gawping or giggling or gasping and looking away, and I feel okay about it. I feel good about it. Some nights I even feel bold and beautiful. I do, however, feel a bit uneasy about how I got there.
Exposing myself to 75 strangers a night has made me think a lot about what psychologist Susie Orbach calls “body terror”, the chip in your brain that tells you your body isn’t good enough but if you buy this cream, eat this thing, do this exercise, you can look like Rhianna and you will be happy. The idea that to be beautiful you must have one specific body: poreless skin, endless legs, tits that would get stuck in a champagne glass.
I grew my underarm hair for the occasion because I wanted to be naked on my terms. Or it was something else to hide behind. Or I wanted to make a point, that you could be beautiful with hairy arm-pits. I don’t know, really. The thing is, women feel like we have a choice about shaving, but we don’t. Not really. It’s not any sort of real choice. It’s a choice between looking normal and making most potential lovers gag. All but one man I told was openly appalled. My ex said, ‘That’s disgusting, you’ll look like a Minotaur.’ He’s a funny man. I was nervous about it. Up to the last minute I wasn’t at all sure that I wasn’t going to shave it off in the secret shower behind the loo roll-holder in The Gate’s toilet on press night. But a weird thing happened: I started to like it. When you can see my pubic hair as well, it looks kind of great – like it matches. Like a hat and gloves. Like it’s meant to be there.
We all know the bleached, waxed, sprayed, toned, sliced, photo-shopped people we see every day aren’t real. It’s not how we are. It’s not how we’re meant to be. It’s rubbish. But it’s insidious rubbish. It’s hard not to want to look, well, better. And, as an actress, I’m part of the problem. Actors are illusionists. We feel like we have to be; we get work based on what we look like. I know which angle I look best at. It’s the angle I present to photographers. It’s the angle I’m presenting in the photo with this piece.
I don’t want the young women who look up to me because I’m a feminist and I’m in a TV show they love to feel like they somehow fall short. So I should have stood on stage as Helen of Troy, flaws and all, and thumbed my nose at body terror and body fascism. But I couldn’t; I just wasn’t brave enough.
I knew that to do it, I’d have to pull off the mother and father of all confidence tricks. I’d have to treat my psoriasis with steroids and hope they worked; I’d have to try and tone my thighs; and, if the lighting looked like a Tube train or a shop changing-room, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.
In the end it involved a lot of pluck, a little plucking, fourteen hours on a Pilates machine, a pink spotlight pointing at my breasts and actually pumping up the fitness ball my mum bought me one long-ago Christmas. (I opened the box. It came with a free exercise VHS.) In the minute and a half it takes to do a quick change from an distraught, weeping Andromache into La Belle Hélène, our stage manager Jess sluices body oil on my back in as non-erotic a fashion as possible while I smear make-up over my scars and cake on mascara.
It’s getting easier. I’m not sure if the audience can still see the lines on my legs and the leopard spots on my belly and the dimples on my bottom. But the more times I stand out there, the more normal it feels to be naked and not shy; the closer to Helen’s boldness I come; and the more it doesn’t matter if they can. Maybe at some point I’ll even look down.
At some point I should also probably tell my dad I get naked in this play. He’s coming tomorrow. ‘Hi, Dad, if you’re reading this. Hi. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you when to close your eyes.’
The rest of you, you take your chances.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Times newspaper on December 11th 2012
Copyright Louise Brealey 2012
All photographs are Copyright Mary Turner 2012 (please credit if you reblog)
"Darling". What a lovely word that is, in the right mouth.
Here’s a playlist made from some of my favourite instances of darling, or darlin’, in popular music, that includes suggestions made by nice people on the social networking site, Twitter. All links to YouTube; apologies for some of the appalling videos.
The light of the sun is but the shadow of love… Love is the wind, the tide, the waves, the sunshine. Its power is incalculable; it is many horse-power. It never ceases, it never slacks; it can move the globe without a resting-place; it can warm without fire; it can feed without meat; it can clothe without garments; it can shelter without roof; it can make a paradise within which will dispense with a paradise without. But though the wisest men in all ages have labored to publish this force, and every human heart is, sooner or later, more or less, made to feel it, yet how little is actually applied to social ends! True… the power of love has been but meanly and sparingly applied, as yet. It has patented only such machines as the almshouse, the hospital, and the Bible Society, while its infinite wind is still blowing, and blowing down these very structures too, from time to time. Still less are we accumulating its power, and preparing to act with greater energy at a future time. Shall we not contribute our shares to this enterprise, then?
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
U.S. philosopher, author, naturalist.