Strange to think that River was the one on track to basically have Joaquin’s career. Yet I think a lot of younger people only really know him from Stand By Me and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and are not aware of how things could have been. Of what we were expecting from him. He was nominated for an Oscar for his sixth movie, Running on Empty. He lost to Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda, and the other nominees that year were Sir Alec Guinness, Martin Landau, and Dean Stockwell. It’s an impressive list. And, yes, the Phoenixes are the only brothers to both be nominated for Oscars. But in a different timeline, they both could have won.
It’s clear that Joaquin is aware of this. Actually, three of River’s nephews ended up being named after him—one sister named her son Rio, and one named her son Indiana. Granted, only Joaquin has reference River in an Oscar acceptance speech, but neither Liberty nor Summer have won Oscars, so they haven’t had the chance. But it seems as though Joaquin has a lot of weight on him, being River’s Brother. He was four years younger. And in the last 27 years, he’s done no few projects I could’ve seen River in.
River was so talented. So talented and, yes, so beautiful. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that Stand By Me was only his second movie. His performance as Chris Chambers is the best in the movie. All the kids do impressive work, for kids their age, but River was doing impressive work for someone even older. His character was supposed to be old for his age, and Phoenix captured that. Sure, all right, he was sixteen and playing a twelve-year-old, but even for sixteen, the performance is so pure and so vulnerable.
At nineteen, he was selected by Harrison Ford to play young Indiana Jones, having previously played Ford’s son in The Mosquito Coast. It’s the only full-on blockbuster he ever did, though goodness knows how that might have changed, all things considered. It’s the only time I ever saw him on the big screen, though my friend Reema was crazy about him even before that and was the only twelve-year-old with a Running on Empty poster, if I remember correctly. It was certainly the only movie of his I wouldn’t have had to make an effort to see.
I have, in later years, seen some of his movies after that. He was a varied performer. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him in a full-on comedic role, but certainly he captured any number of different feelings. All edged with that beautiful vulnerability. It’s so hard not to keep using the word “beautiful,” honestly, because even in that dreadful Chris Chambers crewcut, he was a lovely young man. One of the few people I’ve written about who was, at the time of his death, younger than I am now—I am a few years shy of twice the age he was when he died. But he is with Heath Ledger and James Dean on the list of people whose lives will always make us wish they’d lived longer.