Considering the dizzying talent and charisma River Phoenix demonstrated in his brief acting career, one can only imagine what he would've been able to accomplish had he lived beyond the age of 23. Despite his premature drug-induced death in 1993, Phoenix — like James Dean, whom he's often been compared to — left us a cinematic legacy that reminds us of his formidable promise.
Here are some of Phoenix's best roles:
Stand By Me (1986)
Playing troubled kid Chris Chambers, Phoenix stepped into his first prominent role in Rob Reiner's coming-of-age film Stand By Me, based on Stephen King's novella The Body. Within the talented ensemble cast, which co-starred Corey Feldman, Wil Wheaton and Jerry O'Connell, Phoenix exuded exceptional maturity and charisma on-screen. Some critics even suggested the young 15-year-old gave the drama its "centre of gravity."
Running on Empty (1988)
Directed by Sidney Lumet, Running on Empty was Phoenix's transition into more mature roles. In the film, Phoenix played Danny Pope, a musically talented son of two counterculture parents who were on the run from the FBI. His role earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Phoenix enjoyed playing Danny so much that he had hoped the film would have a sequel. Co-starring in Running on Empty was his real-life girlfriend, actress Martha Plimpton, who had also appeared with him in Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Perhaps one of his most commercially viable films, Phoenix played a young idealistic Indiana Jones, opposite Harrison Ford in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Ford and Phoenix were not new to each other, having played father and son in The Mosquito Coast a few years prior. In fact it was Ford who suggested Phoenix for the role of young Indiana since Phoenix reminded Ford of himself in his earlier years.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Exploring more provocative roles, Phoenix raised eyebrows when he decided to star in Gus Van Sant's indie film My Own Private Idaho, in which he played a gay street hustler who's in search of his mother. The film also starred Keanu Reeves and was largely a critical success, although earning a modest income at the box office. Among his awards for his role, Phoenix earned an Independent Spirit Awards for Best Male Lead. Of his performance, Newsweek wrote: "The campfire scene in which Mike (Phoenix) awkwardly declares his unrequited love for Scott (Reeves) is a marvel of delicacy. In this, and every scene, Phoenix immerses himself so deeply inside his character you almost forget you've seen him before: it's a stunningly sensitive performance, poignant and comic at once."