In 1986, River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton were the picture of young love. They were the coolest kids in Hollywood, having struck up a relationship at just 16 years old on the set of The Mosquito Coast. The co-stars were inseparable during their three years together. According to a 1994 Esquire article, Plimpton even lived with the Phoenix family for a spell while they were dating.
They memorably attended the 1989 Oscars together where Plimpton rocked a shaved head long before it was trendy. Unfortunately, Plimpton and Phoenix would part ways that same year. It was an open secret in Hollywood that their split was due to Phoenix’s increasing drug and alcohol use. Then, just four years later, Phoenix died of a drug overdose at age 23.
In 1994, Plimpton gave one statement about Phoenix’s passing. “He’s already being made into a martyr,” Plimpton told Esquire. “He’s become a metaphor for a fallen angel, a messiah. He wasn’t. He was just a boy, a very good-hearted boy who was very f*cked-up and had no idea how to implement his good intentions. I don’t want to be comforted by his death. I think it’s right that I’m angry about it, angry at the people who helped him stay sick, and angry at River.”
It’s unclear to what extent Phoenix was using drugs in the years before his passing. Most people in his life agree that he was sober in the weeks leading up to his death, making the tragedy all the more confusing. However, there’s a pretty steady consensus that Phoenix had been struggling with sporadic drug use and alcoholism for years.
“He really liked getting drunk and high,” Plimpton told the publication. “But he didn’t have a gauge for when to stop. When we split up, a lot of it was that I had learned that screaming, fighting, and begging wasn’t going to change him, that he had to change himself, and that he didn’t want to yet.”
Since then, Plimpton has had a successful acting career, appearing in various movies, TV shows, and stage plays. She’s managed to crawl out of the enormous shadow cast by her childhood role in The Goonies and her relationship with Phoenix.
She doesn’t speak publicly about her first love anymore. “I haven’t talked about it since then for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that if I did, that would be all anyone would ever say I had ever said about anything, ever,” she told Buzzfeed in 2014. She noted that she has a “full life” and doesn’t “need to repeat” herself. We can’t blame her—in death, Phoenix casts an even taller shadow.
As time goes on, River Phoenix’s tragic passing has become a cautionary tale of sorts. He was proof that not all drug addiction looks the same. Furthermore, his breakup with Plimpton also serves as a powerful reminder that drugs don’t only kill—they also have the power to end relationships and sever us from those we love the most.