“There shall be no mourning.”—JEAN-FRANÇOIS LYOTARD
The stew had just asked Mr. Phoenix if it was true he once called himself Leaf and if he was ever in a vegan sex cult and was he “terribly vexed” about his harelip, and just when the meddlesome crew member was getting to the famously broadcast 911 call from the Viper Room sidewalk the turbulence hit and he got thrown to the ceiling, noisily beshat himself, then went lifeless.
Unfortunately, none of this is true.
We are actually in the leafy garden of—yes—the Chateau Marmont. I thought I was going to be early, but Mr. Phoenix is here first, on the phone with his mom. He motions me over. Now, I’m the very last person to not love the Chateau, but it’s become the virtual-reality Matrix of the celeb interview; upon being gently challenged, Mr. Phoenix’s Contact said it was the only venue he felt comfortable in. And I totally got it. But I’m going to lie, because I lamely wish to fight the Chateau-interview cliché, just as Nicky Hilton fought against the blonde stereotype when she and Paris did Hollywood Squares, saying, with perfectly paradoxical logic, that “we’re going to defend that.” I will cling to the shticky charade that we’re on a plane; everything else will be true unless I inform otherwise. Are you with me?
Mr. Phoenix hates flying and happened to take his first sober plane ride not too long ago—to Nashville. He was in rehab for a month and has been out for around six. The first thing I tell him is how I’m not going to write about River, but he rolls right into how the press laid this thing on him, what he calls The Mourning Brother, which sounds like a Victorian poem. He never talked about the death—why should he?—so they tagged him the way they do with captioned actor portraits for those portentous Annie Leibowitz Vanity Fair extravaganzoids: The Survivor, The Prince, The Man.
The Mourning Brother.
I saw his new film, Walk the Line, about Johnny Cash (Reese Witherspoon fabulous as June Carter, no shit), and as I watched, the biographical details I’d gleaned through docs the last few years came back: all that unexpectedly tender stuff with Rick Rubin, the “Hurt” video, the Larry King compilation shows of Cash’s past appearances—but more so the grisly thing about the singer losing his older brother when he was a kid, to a buzz saw. Somewhere about 70 minutes into the film, when Cash is starting to court June and she learns his brother is dead, and Cash says he hasn’t spoken about that in a long while, he tells her he talked about it lots at first but people got sick of it so he just shut up, and you can’t help but think: Oh! This is, like, autobiographical. Probably the reason he did the movie in the first place. But Mr. Phoenix says that just isn’t true—no exorcism or catharsis involved, and you righteously believe him.