Despite his boyish appeal, River Phoenix managed to transcend mere pinup status by taking bold parts in occasionally daring films. Like James Dean’s, his abrupt death leaves audiences wondering what the future might have held. Some of his greater performances:
* Stand By Me (1986) At age 15, he played a young tough guy and won attention by helping Rob Reiner create the best Stephen King adaptation since Carrie.
* The Mosquito Coast (1986) Phoenix showed rare realism for a teen actor—maybe because the Paul Theroux story of a family that relocates to the jungle has remarkable parallels to Phoenix’s own early life as the son of free-spirited missionaries.
* Running On Empty (1988) His part as Danny Pope, the most memorable rebel pianist since Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces, made Phoenix the first of his generation to earn an Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actor).
* My Own Private Idaho (1991) Phoenix turned in his most dazzling and most perilous performance as a narcoleptic male prostitute. To gauge his progress, compare the heartrending campfire scene, in which his character declares his love for his friend, Scott (Keanu Reeves), with similarly revelatory scenes in Stand by Me and Running on Empty.