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Book Review – Last Night at the Viper Room by Gavin Edwards

Synopsis:  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.

First Line:  It ends outside a nightclub called the Viper Room, on a Hollywood sidewalk.

Random Quote:  River, used to playing the peacemaker, tried to intercede between [Judy] Davis and [George] Sluizer, only to find himself the object of her scorn:  she nicknamed him “Frat Boy.”  When River, trying to be friendly, asked Davis when her family would be visiting the set, she snapped, “What is this, Frat Boy’s question time?”  She also believed River was using drugs.  “I thought he was doing something when I first got there,” she said.  “There was one day when he came in so out of it.  River said he’d had too much sodium the night before.  Okay, I’ve never had a sodium overdose.  Maybe that’s exactly what they’re like.”

River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho

Review:  I’ve always liked River Phoenix.  He was a beautiful man and a good actor in the right parts with the right directors, although he didn’t live long enough to have the career he could’ve had.  As the primary financial supporter for his family, he took the movies he was offered and quality of script and director didn’t always factor in.  I like to think that if his career trajectory had been longer he would’ve truly shined much as his brother, Joaquin Phoenix, has (River thought Joaquin was the most talented in the family).  Maybe I have a special fondness for both him and Keanu Reeves because they were in Gus Van Sant‘s brilliant My Own Private Idaho, one of my all-time favorite movies.

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.

FTC Disclosure:  Advance copy for review from publisher

Publishing Information:  It Books – October 22, 2013

Format:  Kindle

Published inBooks

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