Heart Phoenix sat on the edge of the stage and beckoned everyone near. The 150 people in Paramount Studios’ screening room gathered around like disciples. A short, tan woman with graying hair, Heart has a way of soothing fears. The mourners needed her now; her son River’s memorial service had been wrenching. During their tributes, Christine Lahti, River’s mother in Running on Empty, and Iris Burton, River’s agent and “second mother,” had broken down.
They and others had recalled Phoenix’s mercurial abandon, his peculiar combination of heart-stopping innocence and ageless wisdom, his “vegan,” or ultravegetarian, beliefs, and, always, the eggshell beauty of his acting. Seeking consolation, they had groped to trace in Phoenix’s life a narrative arc, a theme, even a moral.
But River Phoenix had a stubborn case of the vagabond disease that afflicts celebrities: he affected others deeply yet narrowly before moving on. Iris Burton was not the only one present who had privately wondered, in the three weeks since Phoenix’s death, whether she had really known him, whether he hadn’t been acting a part around her.
Heart spoke, holding Rob Reiner’s hand for support. Her hopes for her son had always been on a wholly different plane from most stage mothers’. “We believed we could use the mass media to help change the world,” as Heart puts it now, “and that River would be our missionary.” She tried to explain that calling to the mourners, saying that she’d sensed from the beginning, as he...