The 1986 coming-of-age drama Stand By Me remains one of the best examples of how to depict the complexities of young characters. Adapted from the Stephen King novella The Body and utilizing the title of the classic Ben E. King song, Stand By Me featured a group of young boys who journey to see a dead body.
The film has received immense acclaim as the years go on thanks to its incredible storytelling and depiction of the aforementioned 4 boys - Chris, Gordie, Teddy and Vern. The core group consisting of River Phoenix, Will Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O'Connell, who led the film to its success because of their phenomenal chemistry and (surprisingly) evocative acting.
In honor of the film's 30th anniversary last year, Variety sat down with the crew and creative team behind the film, including director Rob Reiner and the remaining 3 actors of the group. However, one key member's absence was certainly felt throughout the piece, as River Phoenix tragically passed away in 1993. During the interview, Reiner discusses the emotional "milk money" scene (that never fails to bring a tear to my eye) and how he managed to get Phoenix to conjure up such sadness at such an early age.
The "milk money" scene features Chris (Phoenix) confiding in Gordie (Wheaton) about the betrayal of his teacher, Old Lady Simons. After initially stealing the school's milk money, Chris ultimately returned it to Mrs. Simons, who then suspiciously came into school the next week with a brand new skirt. The scene showcases Phoenix's exceptional talent as he places himself in the shoes of his character - the one who "never thought that a teacher" would stoop so low.
In the Variety interview, Reiner revealed the scene was done a couple of times, but "didn't have that emotion to it." After taking Phoenix aside, he gave him the following advice that seemingly sparked something in him.
"[You] don’t have to tell me what it is, but think about a time that an adult, somebody important to you, let you down and you felt like they weren’t there for you."
With that piece of advice, Phoenix provided the take fans know from the film. The star never told Reiner what he thought about in order to portray the raw emotion featured in the scene, but he assumes it was about "his father or mother".
Many of those involved in the production of the film remained in awe of Phoenix's talent, with the older Gordie, Richard Dreyfuss, praising the young actor and stating that his untimely loss was a "real theft".
"He was, without question, the best of that group of actors that came up at that time. Movie stardom is not just acting talent. It’s not just your ability to move an audience. It’s a combination of a lot of things. And he had it. He died so young that it was a real theft. A real robbery."
The raw emotion that Phoenix managed to internally harness and express on screen is why he remains as beloved as he is. Although his career was unfortunately short-lived, his performances in such films as the Academy Award-nominated Running On Empty, My Own Private Idaho and, of course, Stand By Me, will be seen for generations to come.
Do you have any favorite Stand By Me moments? Let me know in the comments below!
Are you a fan of Stephen King and his various on-screen adaptations? If so, make sure to check out Trivia About Your Favorite Stephen King Adaptation or Character.