Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind Hardcover – Oct 22 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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Top Customer Reviews
boy. A must read for those who have interest in the lives of Hollywoods greatest.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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
Gavin Edwards does a pretty good job of placing Phoenix in the context of this moviemaking era when today's stars got their start - Johnny Depp, Leonardo, Brad Pitt and others have a few appearances - Depp especially, since it's his club where Phoenix died. It's also an era where these movies would never be made today - or they'd be made for direct-to-Netflix. It was a very narrow window between the corporate chaff of the 1980s and the franchise culture that started in 1999. Just like grunge music, when it ended, it was almost like it was never here at all.
That's not true of course - Pitt, Depp, Leo, those are the male superstars of the era. But they've transcended any of their humble beginnings. I'm not sure there's comparable stars today - it seems like we're told right from the start "this person will be huge" and then movies are built to match. They don't make their bones in little films that nobody watches but gain them reputation. Drugs are of course still a big problem - Cory Monteith was on his way, not as a superstar maybe, but certainly a solid actor.
Or maybe that's all rose-colored glasses...dunno.
If the book had a flaw it was the focus on River's biography. It's certainly compelling, but because it is SO unique and bizarre it doesn't really relate to anybody else. If the book had more focus on Joaquin Phoenix it might have had more meaning to me. It's interesting, but I was more compelled when the focus was on Phoenix in Hollywood.
It's a good book for those of a certain age who remember this era and remember that moment of shock that "wait, River Phoenix died? He's my age!" The 1990s were the last great era of America - those who survived it must look back and wonder if it can ever be that good again.
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.*