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The brief, mercurial life of Phoenix

"Lost in Hollywood: The Fast Times and Short Life of River Phoenix," by John Glatt. Photographs. 303 pages. New York: Primus/Donald I. Fine, Inc. $12.95 paperback; $23.95 hardcover This is the story of a teen idol who was molested at age 4, had an agent at 12, landed a feature film role at 14, won an Oscar nomination at 18, and died at 21. It is also, not surprisingly, an old-fashioned cautionary tale, updated for Generation X. John Glatt's biography of River Phoenix, who starred in " My Own Private Idaho" and " Dogfight" before collapsing of a massive drug overdose on a Los Angeles sidewalk in 1993, reads this remarkable life as a surefire recipe for the disaster that ended it.

It has been commonplace to cast Hollywood as the villain of Phoenix's tragic story, to see it as " the classic case of a pure soul being corrupted by the Sodom of Hollywood." Refreshingly, however, New York-based journalist Glatt complicates this pat tale of innocence lost. The " mystery" of Phoenix's life and death as plotted here incriminates Hollywood, but even more the actor's bizarre upbringing, and the difficulty of negotiating two irreconcilable lives.

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Phoenix arrived in Hollywood woefully uneducated and yet wise beyond his years. In Children of God, the radical cult to which his family had belonged for a time, the doctrine of free love had been taken to a depraved extreme. Phoenix was initiated into sexual activity virtually in the communal cradle.

The following impoverished years found Phoenix panhandling on South American streets, stowing away on transcontinental freighters, and answering casting calls for television ads. As a young teen he had an enthusiastic agent and a network project; a few years later, the warm receptions of " Stand By Me" brought full-fledged celebrity and a new set of problems. His parents, no longer Children of God, were now vegans committed to saving the world. Phoenix embraced their values but found it harder to live up to them the higher his star rose. His clean-living public image came to be sharply at odds with an increasingly dissolute reality.

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Working from dozens of new interviews with Phoenix's friends and colleagues, and excerpting older interviews with the actor himself, Glatt patches together an affecting account of this curtailed life. His efficient reportorial style makes for a book that respectably represents but does not transcend its genre. Glatt corrals a wealth of information, but whatever profundity or pathos his book contains comes in the quoted words of Phoenix and perceptive (or haunted) friends.

Frequently, " Lost in Hollywood" implies that River Phoenix is going to inevitably commit suicide. Glatt sees the actor's tragic accident as the logical consequence of his inner struggles, finding the death foreshadowed in the life's fissures.

Certainly those " demons" Glatt finds in Phoenix's psyche led to the self-destructive behavior that killed him. But reckless drug use does not necessarily mean a death wish -- except in the minds of celebrity biographers looking for neat explanations of messy lives.

Laura Demanski works at the University of Chicago Press and has worked for Simon & Schuster. She is pursuing a doctorate in English literature at the University of Chicago.


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