Let’s revisit a strong Hollywood production about chasing love and fame in Nashville, featuring the acting and vocal talents of one of the Phoenix brothers. No, not that one. We’re talking about the late River Phoenix, the leading man of the underrated 1993 comedy-drama film The Thing Called Love.
The story follows four aspiring young singer/songwriters as they try to get noticed at the Bluebird Cafe. Phoenix plays bad boy James Wright, a popular yet arrogant performer with connections around town. Co-star Samantha Mathis’ character, Miranda Presley (no relation), arrives on a Greyhound bus from New York City. She quickly finds herself in the middle of a love triangle between Wright and his more sensitive friend Kyle Davidson, played by Dermot Mulroney. Sandra Bullock rounds out the quartet as wide-eyed Alabama girl Linda Lue Linden. They all seem believable enough in their roles, but it’s Bullock who constantly steals scenes with a healthy mix of Southern charm and unapologetic sass.
Under the watch of director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), the four main co-stars payed homage to the aspiring singers who’re out there waiting tables while daydreaming about stardom.
Guest Stars Abound
The storyline and its special guest stars paint a perhaps idealized vision of the early ’90s country music scene. Country’s everywoman K.T. Oslin appears as Lucy, a wise booking agent with an ear for future hits. Former Johnny Cash side man Earl Poole Ball plays Lucy’s boss at the Bluebird Cafe. Down the street, the lesser known roots rocker Webb Wilder runs a motel.
Throughout the film, the main characters encounter some big names from the time period, with Trisha Yearwood, Deborah Allen, Jo-El Sonnier, Pam Tillis, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Kevin Welch playing themselves. There’s also a charm to seeing posters and fliers for Tanya Tucker, Rodney Crowell, Alan Jackson and other toasts of Tennessee on the walls and windows in various scenes.
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Real Love Blossoms
While Miranda seems to fit better with mild-mannered Kyle than loose cannon James on-screen, that wasn’t the case behind the scenes. Mathis is said to be Phoenix’s last girlfriend, meeting him on the set of what ended up being his final complete screen performance. She was even there on Oct. 30, 1993–the night he died at the Viper Room in Los Angeles.
A Flop That’s Aged Well
Despite its charm, the film was a box office bomb for Paramount Pictures. It made just $1 million in the United States on a $14 million budget. Years later, the film and its story hold up, offering a worthwhile viewing option for anyone looking to fan the flames of ’90s country nostalgia.