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” 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.
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, and 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
(nb: I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss)