Stand By Me was a 1986 coming of age drama that introduced the world to five very talented young performers: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and Kiefer Sutherland.
Based on the Stephen King novella The Body and directed by visionary Rob Reiner, Stand By Me became an instant classic for adolescent boys. I was 15 when I saw the film and like the book The Outsiders, it has stuck with me to this day.
The story of follows four twelve-year-old boys in a small Oregon community in 1959. Seeking adventure, the boys go on a hiking journey to find the dead body of a missing boy. Their efforts are interfered with by teen gang leader Ace Merrill and his band of juvenile delinquent hoodlums who want to find the body first.
Wheaton plays the central character, Gordie, with Richard Dreyfuss offering narration from the vantage of the same character as an adult. Feldman, who audiences already knew from Goonies, has always been a very solid actor and turns in a winning performance as Teddy. O’Connell is adorable as the bumbling, overweight Vern. Sutherland is iconic as Ace. But it is Phoenix who carries the film to a level of excellence in the role of Chris Chambers.
Playing Gordie’s best friend and the de facto leader of their foursome of pre-teens, Phoenix is beyond impressive. His characterization is breathtaking. He is appropriately strong when needed, and compassionate when the lines call for it. Even though he is in a supporting role behind Wheaton’s Gordie, Phoenix’s Chris is the more powerful and memorable character. He perfectly compliments Wheaton’s nice guy Gordie.
The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, but it should have also earned Phoenix a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
The field of competition for Best Supporting Actor in the 59th annual Academy Awards was very strong. Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe were both deserving nominees for their roles in Platoon. Dennis Hopper turned in the best performance of his career as Wilbur “Shooter” Flatch in Hoosiers. Delholm Elliott and Michael Caine were the other nominees in the contest, with Caine winning for his role in Hannah and Her Sisters.
Not only were Berenger, Dafoe, and Hopper superior to Caine in their performances, Phoenix was head and shoulders above all of them. River Phoenix should have at least been nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for Stand By Me. And if you ask me, he should have won.
Phoenix did end up earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the 1988 film Running on Empty. He performance as a gay street hustler for the 1991 indie drama My Own Private Idaho earned him Best Actor accolades from the National Society of Film Critics.
Sadly, Phoenix died of a drug overdose on October 31, 1993 at the age of 23. We can only wonder and hypothesize about what Phoenix could have accomplished as an actor had his candle not gone out at such a young age.
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