Last Night At The Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind Hardcover – Oct 3 2013
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“Twenty years after his death, River Phoenix remains as enigmatic and elusive as ever. Last Night at the Viper Room tells the heart-shredding story of how this haunted actor left such a big impression in such a brief time.” (Rob Sheffield, New York Times bestselling author of Love Is a Mix Tape)
“What Edwards does do impeccably is reveal the life of an extraordinary young man, whose idealism and dedication to his family, despite crippling childhood conditions, set him apart from the rest of the rising star pack.” (USA Today)
From the Back Cover
Hollywood was built on beautiful and complicated matinee idols: James Dean and Marlon Brando are classic examples, but in the 1990s, the actor who embodied that archetype was River Phoenix. As the brightly colored 1980s wound down, a new crew of leading men began to appear on movie screens. Hailed for their acting prowess and admired for choosing meaty roles, actors such as Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, Keanu Reeves, and Brad Pitt were soon rocketing toward stardom while an unknown Leonardo DiCaprio prepared to make his acting debut. River Phoenix, however, stood in front of the pack. Blessed with natural talent and fueled by integrity, Phoenix was admired by his peers and adored by his fans. More than just a pinup on teenage girls' walls, Phoenix was also a fervent defender of the environment and a vocal proponent of a vegan lifestyle—well on his way to becoming a symbol of his generation. At age eighteen, he received his first Oscar nomination. But behind his beautiful public face, there was a young man who had been raised in a cult by nonconformist parents, who was burdened with supporting his family from a young age, and who eventually succumbed to addiction, escaping into a maelstrom of drink and drugs.
And then he was gone. After a dozen films, including Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho, and with a seemingly limitless future, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose. He was twenty-three years old.
In Last Night at the Viper Room, bestselling author and journalist Gavin Edwards toggles between the tragic events at the Viper Room in West Hollywood on Halloween 1993 and the story of an extraordinary life. Last Night at the Viper Room is part biography, part cultural history of the 1990s, and part celebration of River Phoenix, a Hollywood icon gone too soon. Full of interviews from his fellow actors, directors, friends, and family, Last Night at the Viper Room shows the role he played in creating the place of the actor in our modern culture and the impact his work still makes today.See all Product Description
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boy. A must read for those who have interest in the lives of Hollywoods greatest.
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I remember watching the news on October 31, 1993. I didn't usually watch the evening news--I was always either working or at happy hour--but this was a Sunday, so I was probably doing laundry and nursing a hangover.
I remember watching the news on October 31, 1993 only because the anchor reported that both River Phoenix and Federico Fellini had died. It seemed oddly fitting that two such bookending film personae died the same day.
Fellini was 73, and he'd enjoyed a long, celebrated career, winning five Oscars and creating a style so unique, it spawned its own adjective: Felliniesque.
River Phoenix, though. My God, I thought, he was only 23. He had obvious talent, although most of his films didn't show it, and he could have been one of the greats, if only...
Gavin Edwards's "Last Night at The Viper Room" fills in the "if only" in one of the best biographies I've read this year.
In his day, River Phoenix was portrayed as "The Vegan James Dean," and there was something Dean-like about him. Back in the late 1980's and early 90's, his story was fairly well-known. His parents were hippies who moved to South America as part of some weird cult, and they named their kids things like River, Liberty, Rain, etc. Also, River was a big environmental activist, plus a vegan and animal rights supporter. He spoke out against drug use, and seemed like a nice--if quirky--kid.
The drinking was first. Then came the drugs: weed, at first, then cocaine, then heroin. Between his breakout in 1986's Stand By Me [HD] and his OD just seven years later, River Phoenix spiraled hard into substance abuse. His appearance changed. The once strong, handsome young star showed up for auditions with his skin looking almost gray. His clothes were dirty and worn. Some of his last performances were almost unintelligible. His reputation in Hollywood was tarnished; he had trouble finding good films. Finally, he collapsed and died outside The Viper Room.
"Last Night at The Viper Room" charts River's short life, from his birth to nomadic hippie parents all the way to the bitter end.
That's what biographies do, but the wonder of "Last Night at The Viper Room" is that it does more than provide a truckload of facts. Author Gavin Edwards shows remarkable verve and style, taking this book far beyond the dry tedium of many biographies. Edwards wrote extensively for "Details" and "Rolling Stone" magazines, and his style here shows much of the hip, rock & roll journalism pacing one finds in a good, extended magazine piece.
I was drawn-in to "Last Night at The Viper Room," and before I knew it, I'd read it in one sitting. It is an addictive book.
Edwards draws on dozens of sources and personal interviews for this work, and his documentation is fastidious. He portrays Phoenix's life not only in a recitation of facts, but in anecdotal quotes from those who best knew the actor, those who worked with him, dated him, befriended him, loved him. In all of their stories, they express dismay at what they saw this talented young actor doing to himself.
Make no mistake, this is a very sad book. River Phoenix had a short, tragic life. His family relied upon him to be the breadwinner. His Hollywood stardom was their golden ticket. River wasn't always comfortable as an actor--he mainly just wanted to play his guitar and sing--but the money was too good. In some roles, he found a way to express himself through his art. Other times, he was just going through the motions.
When he died, some people thought River Phoenix would be like James Dean, a handsome young star who died tragically young, but whose fame would live on forever through his work. That didn't happen with River Phoenix. James Dean is still a legend; River Phoenix is an afterthought who died two decades ago.
His life is immortalized, though, in "Last Night at The Viper Room." From birth to death, it's all right here. Even just for the few hours it took me to read this book, Gavin Edwards brought him back, and once again made me wonder what River Phoenix could have been, if only...
Most Highly Recommended
I honestly can't say I was a fan of River when he was still alive - mostly because I was only three years old when he overdosed. But no matter if you follow someone's career in real time or after the fact, there are some artists, actors, musicians, writers, etc. that just managed to captivate you no matter what. The first time I saw River Phoenix was at the age of eleven when I saw Stand By Me. His performance (the whole movie, really) was so entirely honest that I was hooked on watching him. The air of mystery that shrouded him has only intrigued me even more as an adult. So when I saw that there was going to be a biography published about him, I knew I absolutely had to read it. I had to learn more about River than the almost tangible nothing that I already 'knew.'
Gavin Edwards manages to do something extremely interesting with this book. He strikes a very nearly perfect balance of pop culture biography and personal biography. This book is just as much about River and his troubled youth/death as it also manages to be about his entire generation of fellow actors. Edwards gives us interesting facts about the ways River not dying would have affected the movie industry. Young Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn't have been in Basketball Diaries or The Man In The Iron Mask. Christian Slater wouldn't have been the interviewer in Interview With a Vampire. Would his brother Joaquin still be as famous as he is today? There are definitely some interesting what-ifs that this book presents to the readers.
All of the information about River's nomadic childhood, the sexual abuse he suffered and how he was the family's sole means of support for quite some time was heartbreaking. Add in the slow decline of becoming addicted to drugs, self-sabotage and unhappiness and things become that much worse. Edwards managed to describe the drug abuse without in any way AT ALL romanticizing it and actually managed to make reading about it cause me to feel sick to my stomach. The interviews with friends, family, girlfriends and even just people who barely knew who he was (like Johnny Depp, who only saw him at the club the night of the overdose) all lend to the bigger picture of the book, but also give us detailed information about River himself. We got to learn about his vegan lifestyle, the awkwardness of who he was in general. River wasn't even sure if he wanted to act anymore, actually being more interested in a band that he formed with some friends and one of his sisters, called Aleka's Attic. He was also good friends with lots of musicians (including Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers). This read very personal, almost like a story instead of straight, cold hard non-fiction. I was happy about that, because it's how I prefer my biographies/autobiographies to read. I like feeling like I'm being told something with some feeling behind it.
Overall, this book gives us as readers a good window into the life of one interesting young man, full of potential that was wasted by an early death. Also, it gives us insight into an entire generation of young Hollywood and the way it developed into what we're familiar with today. I did like that while River's drug abuse/addiction wasn't romanticized it also wasn't the book's focus. Instead we got to focus on the life leading up to it and the fact that no one even knew he was in that downward spiral. I will always wonder 'what if' he had lived, grown older and made more movies. What would he look like, what career choices would he have made? Obscurity, TV Star or film, movies or music? I guess we'll never really know.
VERDICT: 4.5/5 Stars
*I received an Advanced Reading E-book Copy from the publisher, and imprint of Harper Collins, via Edelweiss. No money or favors were exchanged for this review. This book was published October 22nd, 2013.*
Last Night at the Viper Room examines Phoenix’s brief life, beginning with his upbringing in what could politely be called a commune, but would more accurately be described as a cult. Sexual abuse of children was common and even encouraged, and Phoenix was a victim. In an all-too-familiar theme, Phoenix’s family tried to turn all their children into starts, beginning by forcing them to conduct musical performances on the streets for money. River soon became the family breadwinner when he began to land legitimate acting jobs. Today, we could create an endless list of fallen former child stars, but in the early nineties, before websites like TMZ exposed bad behavior for all to see, Phoenix was able to keep his drug addiction a secret from the public. Even while he wasted away and became more of a liability on film sets, he promoted his supposedly healthy lifestyle in interviews. All around him were the enablers who ignored the problem, because they were dependent on him for income: his family, his manager, his various directors. His death could not have come as a surprise to any of them.
Because Phoenix’s life was so short, Last Night at the Viper Room is equal parts biography and a look at the society in the early nineties among Phoenix and his acting peers, including Johnny Depp, who owned the nightclub where Phoenix overdosed. The book charts the early careers of other young actors at the time, including Depp, Brad Pitt, and Keanu Reeves, and the less successful/more depressing cases like Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. There’s not a a great deal of new information here, although it’s clearly well-researched and well-sourced. Missing are interviews with any of Phonenix’s family members, but that is not terribly surprising. I don’t think this book would be very interesting to people who aren’t already aware of Phoenix, unless they have a particular interest in the young celebrity culture of the early nineties. But for me, it was both an interesting and depressing path down memory lane.
Last Night at the Viper Room is a decent celebrity biography, exploring River Phoenix's brief life and untimely death with stops along the way to visit other people with whom his life was intertwined. More than a biography of Mr. Phoenix, this is really about the times - the glorious nineties when more was more. Mr. Edwards does justice to Mr. Phoenix's childhood, touching on the family's ties to the Children of God cult and the damage that was done to their children because of their involvement. It's a sad and cautionary tale about choices and the context within which they are made. I wish Mr. Edwards had been better able to piece together the last day of Mr. Phoenix's life, but since I read this in tandem with Bob Forrest's Running with Monsters I already knew what happened. How sad for a life to end seizing on the sidewalk in front of friends and family with the terror of bad publicity and the paparazzi hanging over the entire event. I'm glad I read this book, but I'll remember River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, falling asleep by the side of the road, helpless and sad but still fighting on.
Gavin Edwards has an engaging, sometimes amusing style. He offers a lot of detail and has clearly done his homework. The picture he paints is a River as interesting as a 23 year old could be: this young man was smart, sensitive and talented. He faced a lot of challenges in his short life: he was dyslexic, had been sexually abused, and his recreational drug use turned into a full-scale addiction.
His parents (with all the little Phoenixes, or Bottomses, as they were called then) were hippies who joined a cult and traipsed around the Americas, which put a damper on any kind of formal education. When River started getting good paying movie opportunities, he became financially responsible for the family, while still in his teens.
I liked the way Edwards weaves accounts of other actors from that era into his narrative. Johnny Depp, Leonardo diCaprio, Keanu Reeves, and several other now-household names were River's contemporaries. It was interesting to read how their parallel career tracks developed.
This is a fast read, and there's no index. Also, an appendix with more specific information about River's filmography would have been helpful.
"Last Night" really puts River's Hollywood into context. I like knowing the stories behind stories, and if you're curious about River's journey, you'll like this book, too.
How sad that such a gifted young man died at the beginning of what should have been a long and fruitful career. I hope River's death has at least served as a warning to other young people who might be tempted to experiment with drugs.