It was 20 years ago today that River Phoenix died on a dirty sidewalk in Hollywood. If that sentence sounds a bit harsh, well, it’s supposed to. That’s the unfortunate reality of the what happened on October 31, 1993. One of the most promising actors of his generation had just been inside of Johnny Depp‘s notoriously hedonistic rock club, the Viper Room, hoping to join his buddy Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) on-stage, but instead decided to ingest a cocktail—a literal cocktail!—that contained heroin and cocaine. Just a few minutes later, he was convulsing near a parking meter on Sunset Boulevard; he never regained consciousness. He was 23 years old.
Though Robert Pattinson has made his share of independent movies in his career, this week’s Cosmopolis is widely thought of has his big move to make a post-Twilight career for himself. And he certainly wouldn’t be the first hot young actor to make a case for himself as a serious actor by taking a giant step into the world of dark and twisty films. Many a heartthrob has gone from the pages of Tiger Beat to the local arthouse theater quite soon after they made it big, from Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix’s turns as gay hustlers in My Own Private Idaho to Daniel Radcliffe’s recent venture into spooky suspense with The Woman in Black. Sometimes it’s because they really love the art of filmmaking, like Rob seems to, and other times, it seems like a calculated move to make themselves Oscar contenders instead of Teen Choice surfboard winners.
Sometimes, they find their comfort zone in dark and twisty, sometimes, like in the case of Marlon Wayans, who surprised critics with his performance in Requiem for a Dream, it turns out to be a one-time-only deal. Still, we love them all for trying! Here are our 10 favorite arty and deep roles taken on by mainstream hotties:
Perhaps some of you are too young to remember the beauty and heartbreaking talent of River Phoenix. Back in the day, he was like Robert Pattinson x10,000 to some of us. And when I heard that he died of drug-induced heart failure in 1993 — it was on Channel One News in homeroom — I broke down and cried like I never have for a celebrity. Now, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the director of Dark Blood, the movie he was making when he died, has for some reason decided to finish the movie, 18 years later. Director George Sluizer said heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to hire RiverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s younger brother Joaquin Phoenix to do voice over to complete some scenes. River stars as a man who lives by himself on a nuclear testing site, waiting for the end of the world, when a Ã¢â‚¬Å“Hollywood jet-set coupleÃ¢â‚¬Â intrude on his solitude.
IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not sure if I need my memory of River messed with, though. Depends on how well itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s done. And here is where I could run a poll asking for your favorite River Phoenix movie. Instead, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m just going to say this: No argument, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Running on Empty. He plays a piano prodigy who’s grown up in a family that’s been on the lam since his hippie parents bombed a napalm lab. But when he falls in love with Martha Plimpton, he starts to think about a different kind of life for himself. Netflix it now. Or argue with me in the comments. /nostalgia off.
River Phoenix‘s 1993 overdose was not the first tragic death of a young actor nor the last, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of songs that have been written to honor and mourn the 23-year-old Hollywood casualty. Kurt Cobain, REM, Beyoncé, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Petty, and many others have paid musical respect to the handsome young star, whose death from a mix of heroin and cocaine helped highlight the rise of heroin chic.
River didn’t live long enough to become a true matinee idol (how many people have actually seen Running On Empty, which got him his Academy Award nom at 18?). But prominent roles in films ranging from My Own Private Idaho to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade promised a fascinating career for the Phoenix, who enamored many with his political activism. He had no previous drug history, and many were shocked when River died on the sidewalk outside of Johnny Depp‘s club, the Viper Room, following a night of hard partying. Brother Joaquin, who would eventually be nominated for an Oscar himself, almost quit acting after his desperate 911 call was played on TV.
Despite claims that River’s last words were “No paparazzi, I want anonymity,” a photographer broke into the funeral home, and sold a snap of his corpse to the National Enquirer for $5,000.