Thanks to Bernadette for sending me this Pop Matters article, written for the 16th anniversary of River Phoenix's death. I can't relate to all of it - her love-hate relationship with him as an actor was all love-love for me - but it has some lovely bits to it. Here's an excerpt:
I finally understood what made River Phoenix special. He had the singular ability to portray real, honest emotion in all its vast ugliness. His nose ran; his body twitched; his voice cracked and stuttered. At times, he was barely audible. But with a choppy, sotto voce delivery, he gave audiences an unpleasant, unsatisfying, cathartic release by revealing all the pain and fear and frustration that they fought so hard to hide.
As in Stand by Me, Phoenix’s shining moment in My Own Private Idaho occurred in the form of a fireside confession. That confession is additionally notable as Phoenix himself wrote it.
His performance wasn’t perfect—he still couldn’t play happy convincingly, and some of his choices were inexplicable—but he had something, an instinct, an ability to make himself transparent. He wasn’t just vulnerable; he was laid bare. As Peter Weir said, “Laurence Olivier never had what River had.” He wasn’t just some teen heartthrob; he was one of the few artists to come out of the 80s who not only had the chance to survive the decade but to transcend it.