Flashback
A look back at this day in film history
December 20
October 31, 1993
River Phoenix dies

During his successful and all-too-short career, actor River Phoenix was the James Dean of his generation. The striking young actor gave soulful performances in films ranging from Rob Reiner's coming-of-age hit Stand by Me to Sidney Lumet's drama about '60s radicals, Running on Empty, to Gus Van Sant's experimental Shakespeare homage, My Own Private Idaho, before dying of a drug overdose at West Hollywood's Viper Room on October 31, 1993. Intelligent, gentle, intense, and projecting a maturity beyond his years, Phoenix was a soft-spoken heartthrob who used his celebrity to promote causes like animal rights as well as to stretch the boundaries of the kinds of parts young movie stars were supposed to accept. In 2003, on the ten-year anniversary of his death, there were a rush of articles speculating on the actor's legacy, some of which wondered why his star did not seem to burn even brighter, as Dean's did. Some noted that the times had changed, and that boomers and Gen X'ers didn't endorse the mythmaking of earlier generations. Others, like producer Stephen Woolley, quoted in The Guardian, speculated that Phoenix would not have followed the path of his colleague Brad Pitt but instead would have been an idiosyncratic screen rebel with a perpetually ambivalent relationship to stardom. "I suspect he would have gone on to play harder, more interesting characters," Woolley said. "Robert Downey Jr is exactly the kind of guy that River would have become had he lived."


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Harold and Maude Dec. 20, 1971
Harold and Maude Opens

Hal Ashby's iconic black comedy Harold and Maude opened in theaters on December 20, 1971.

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December 20, 1979
Bob Fosse's All That Jazz

For denizens of the New York theater scene, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All that Jazz provided them the guessing game of the season. What scandals was Fosse going to spill in his expose musical? The film, which tells the story of a Broadway choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), whose excesses in life and work bring him to the edge of a collapse, was clearly modeled on Fosse’s own life. Some actors (like Ann Reinking) play characters very similar to themselves; other figures (like ex-wife Gwen Verdon, producer Hal Prince, and others) are played by others; and other actors (like Jessica Lange) who were close to Fosse play oddly mythic figures. Fosse, who’d started choreographing for film in 1954, was soon pulled to New York to choreograph and eventually direct such musicals as Pippin, Chicago, and Sweet Charity. In 1969, he started making films as well, winning an Oscar in 1972 for Cabaret. A demanding taskmaster and infamous womanizer, the chain-smoking Fosse suffered a heart attack in 1975. It was during this period that Shirley Maclaine (according to her) suggested he create something about his brush with death. The resulting film is a breathtaking musical sleight of hand as Fosse’s alter ego Joe Gideon reveals his innermost fears and desires only to cover them in the next moment with all that jazz––surreal show stopping dance numbers and Felliniesque romps into his libido and unconscious. In 1987, life imitated art as Fosse died from a heart attack, just moments before his revival of Sweet Charity was to open at the National Theater.

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