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 18, 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 seeminily limitless future, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose. He was 23 years old.
In Last Night at the Viper Room, best-selling 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.
©2013 Gavin Edwards (P)2013 HarperCollins Publishers
I couldn't get past the narrator's creepy attempts to imitate all the different voices. It was over acted and strange. It's too bad because I think the story might have been very interesting. Maybe I'll read the book.
I feel like there were two researchers at work here, or at least an author with an unclear goal. The historical information, setting the Phoenix family's travels in the context of greater social changes within the US was really interesting and whether intentionally or not made the family a metaphor for the larger societal changes. For me, where the book fell down was the constant name checking of the famous. Yes, these are the people River Phoenix hung around with, but it added nothing more than a tabloid gloss. I felt like this book could have been something more, and maybe peered into why so many young people in Hollywood are from troubled backgrounds, and why nothing is done to stop their obvious decline. Or had some focus other than reciting the names of the famous young of the 90s. Instead it felt like it recited headlines from a magazine.
On the plus side, River Phoenix's life story is fascinating, from his extremely unique childhood to his development on movie sets and his young adult life. Also has some fun Hollywood gossip, as it draws quite a bit of the story from quotes from celebs like Johnny Depp, Ethan Hawke, and Martha Plimpton (who was his girlfriend for a few years).
On the negative side, there are some major issues.
1) Bad Narration: the narrator sounds too old and proper when he's reading the 3rd person narration but at least it's clear. All quotes, and there are a LOT, sound terrible. He makes almost every character sound the same way: creepy. Worse, the quotes are significantly quieter than the regular narration. I had to rewind many times because I couldn't make out what had been said, even when I had the volume up high. This was very frustrating.
2) Lack of Coherent Storyline. The fact that the story bounces between the Viper Room and River's life story isn't the problem. The author seems to have bit off more than he could chew in trying to also provide back stories for certain other people, like Johnny Depp. Other times, he will just namecheck a bunch of people at once and move on. He will also approach something that feels important and not dig in further for the real story, maybe out of respect for Phoenix's memory. So there will be a description of some odd behavior Phoenix exhibited where you expect to hear more. Instead you get a non-sequitur about how sweet everyone always thought Phoenix was, and the story moves on. It feels more like the author compiled quotes found elsewhere than that he actually interviewed these people and was able to ask questions.
Overall, a life story like this one is so interesting it ultimately is worth the experience despite the negatives, but I think the credit goes to the man's life, not to this telling of it.
I can vividly recall the meteoric rise of River Phoenix as a different kind of teen icon. After Stand By Me, there was no one my age who did not at least subconsciously know what River Phoenix was doing and what movies he was appearing in. Unlike others in Hollywood who embodied the 80's zeitgeist of selfishness and excess, River Phoenix was promoting animal rights and making quirky choices (mostly) in his film choices that steered many of his fans to see thought-provoking films that they might never have considered if he had not been in them.
This book provides a pretty complete picture of River Phoenix's family, from their transition between hippie nomads to Children of God cult members to unlikely Hollywood royalty. What was particularly amazing about this was how the unconventional worldview and the naive way they looked at River's acting career was tolerated by Hollywood, illustrating that it may not be as necessary as many stage parents seem to think to sacrifice your child's well being to the gods of fame in order to accomplish stardom. However admirable the Phoenix parents' commitment to their ideals may be, it becomes pretty clear that they unfairly placed the burden of providing for the family on the children and especially on River. You can see the adolescent River coming to terms with hypocrisy in them, as well as chafing (however mildly) under the burden at times.
More than anything, this story really makes me wonder what sort of man and what sort of actor River Phoenix might have been if he had not died. Phoenix was not any more of a drug abuser than his contemporaries, he was just unlucky enough that he never got a chance to make the decision to leave drugs behind. It becomes obvious that this is the main difference between River and other stars like Anthony Kiedis, Johnny Depp, Corey Feldman, etc.: they got lucky and River did not.
I have read some reviews that were negative about the narrator'a performance or the author's inclusion of so many perspectives from famous contemporaries of River. I disagree. I thought that 1) the narrator did a fairly amazing job of mimicking the voices of River's famous contemporaries, which was very entertaining, and 2) it would have been impossible to actually capture the times without including all these famous people River knew and how he affected them.
I don't agree with some of the negative reviews around this; I thought the context around young Hollywood at the time was interesting and gave context for Phoenix's life, a sense of comparison about where Phoenix may have ended up had he lived. Didn't find the narration irritating. This book is definitely worth a listen.
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