Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind

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Overview

In Last Night at the Viper Room, acclaimed author and journalist Gavin Edwards vividly recounts the life and tragic death of acclaimed actor River Phoenix—a teen idol on the fast track to Hollywood royalty who died of a drug overdose in front of West Hollywood’s storied club, the Viper Room, at the age of 23.

Last Night at the Viper Room explores the young star’s life, including his childhood in Venezuela growing up under the aegis of the cultish Children of God. Putting him at ...

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Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind

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Overview

In Last Night at the Viper Room, acclaimed author and journalist Gavin Edwards vividly recounts the life and tragic death of acclaimed actor River Phoenix—a teen idol on the fast track to Hollywood royalty who died of a drug overdose in front of West Hollywood’s storied club, the Viper Room, at the age of 23.

Last Night at the Viper Room explores the young star’s life, including his childhood in Venezuela growing up under the aegis of the cultish Children of God. Putting him at the center of a new generation of leading men emerging in the early 1990s— including Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, and Leonardo DiCaprio—Gavin Edwards traces the Academy Award nominee’s meteoric rise, couches him in an examination of the 1990s, and illuminates his lasting legacy on Hollywood and popular culture itself.

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  • Last Night at the Viper Room
    Last Night at the Viper Room  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

When the paramedics arrived at the Viper Room on Sunset Strip, River Phoenix had already flat-lined. The actor/singer had turned twenty-three just a few months before. In that short span, this son of "hippieish" parents had lived several lives. With a name partly borrowed from a Herman Hesse novel and a Beatles' song, River Jude Phoenix had spent of his childhood in Venezuela on the outskirts of the infamous cult Children of God. After his impoverished family left the group, they straggled back to the U.S. on a cargo ship. Soon thereafter, young Phoenix began a film and singing career that made him a teen age idol. Extraordinarily talented, yet without any formal education, he was, as this biography notes, an enigma, a wolf child in celebrity land. Gavin Edwards' compelling Last Night at the Viper Room places this short-lived star in the context of a cultural generation and in a world ultimately only his.

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-20
Twenty years later, the overdose death of a promising young actor doesn't seem to be quite enough to fill a book, even one as well-written as this one. River Phoenix (1970–1993) was only 23 when he died, and though he'd shown a precocious talent as a child actor and singer, he'd only made two movies of note (Stand by Me and My Private Idaho) before an addict's carelessness let him swallow something he shouldn't have. A veteran pop-culture writer for magazines, Edwards ('Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy and Other Misheard Lyrics, 1995) has the makings of a solid article in this commemoration of the actor's death, life and career, but the context he provides feels like padding: the career progressions of other actors of the same generation, production details of films best forgotten, speculation on what he might have achieved if he hadn't died, and the history of the Viper Room and its owner, Johnny Depp, whose connection with Phoenix otherwise seems tenuous at best. The book is more researched than reported, relying on other books and magazines as well as a few interviews with those who were mainly on the periphery of the actor's life. The early material about his parents, hippies who succumbed to a sexually promiscuous religious sect, makes for fascinating reading, but his descent into drugs is familiar and sad, a decline further undermined by denial. In the tick-tock narrative of his final hours, his brother Joaquin responded, after others were alarmed by the sidewalk seizures and suggested he call 911, "He's fine, he's fine." Depp apparently didn't recognize the figure causing the commotion outside his club. But the strict vegan with the warm heart, strong work ethic and increasingly debilitating drug excess needed help long before that. For Phoenix fans who want to relive that night and mourn what might have been.
USA Today
“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.”
Rob Sheffield
“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.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062273154
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/22/2013
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 100,204
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Gavin Edwards

October 31st marks the ten-year anniversary of the death of River Phoenix outside a Sunset Strip nightclub. Only twenty-three years old, the actor had already become a figure of fascination, transfixing audiences with roles in films like Stand By Me, Running on Empty — for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor — and My Own Private Idaho. His personal life only added to the fascination: possessed of both great physical beauty and an intense charisma, Phoenix was an outspoken activist and an aspiring musician whose mistrust of the Hollywood fame machine only boosted his allure in an era when "indie" and "alternative" music and filmmaking were the focus of increasing attention in the early 1990s. His sudden death froze the rising star into an icon while his adult personality seemed to be still in the making.

The young actor's appeal — which reached both critics and fans of popcorn fare like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — masked a childhood marked by chaos, uncertainty, and neglect. When his parents, John and Arlyn Bottom, moved the family to Venezuela as missionaries for the Children of God sect, River and his siblings sang in public to bring in money for the nearly destitute family. Returning to the U.S. after disillusionment with the Children of God (and rechristening the family Phoenix), River's parents ceded the financial responsibilities for the family to their talented eldest, a natural performer who began to land roles on television at the age of thirteen. Soon he was shouldering the burdens of negotiating life in the entertainment business while providing for his entire family as well.

In Last Night at the Viper Room, longtime Rolling Stone journalist and author Gavin Edwards chronicles the young actor's passage from child actor to a film star who seemed to represent many of his generation's most fragile hopes, and unveils the power his talent and personality had over both his peers and audiences. And he revisits the moment when a lethal combination of drugs cut short a career's brilliant promise. We spoke with the author via email about River Phoenix's life, and why his death still resonates, ten years later. —Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: River Phoenix appeared in just over a dozen films, made over a less than a decade before he died in 1993 — what is it that still fascinates us about him?

Gavin Edwards: If you grew up with Phoenix in the '80s and '90s, then he represented an alternative version of Hollywood pinup stardom: a teen idol who was more interested in saving the planet than in getting a fancy car. A committed vegan at a time when most Americans didn't even know what the word meant. Somebody who became an icon of queer liberation just by seeming comfortable playing a character who had sex with men.

Now that it's been twenty years since his death, the fascination is more abstract. A clutch of compelling performances live on via Netflix — My Own Private Idaho, Dogfight, Stand By Me, Running on Empty — but in 2013, River Phoenix represents lost possibilities and secret influences: a lodestar of a beautiful actor making eccentric choices. We don't know what movies he would have starred in that never got made, but we can imagine the best parts of the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp.

BNR: Do you think River Phoenix have wound up such an arresting figure — a sort of generational culture hero — if he'd lived to have a career into his maturity?

GE: For many celebrities, an early death is the best possible career move. It's hard to imagine how anything James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, or Tupac would have done in reality could live up to the idealized visions of their fans. We've seen in recent years how death has washed away many people's reservations about Michael Jackson, restoring the glow of how fans loved him when he was in his prime. In the case of River Phoenix, however, death (aside from being a great personal misfortune) has not helped his reputation. Partially that's because of the uneven nature of his filmography; for every My Own Private Idaho, there's a Silent Tongue, for every Stand By Me, there's a Little Nikita. An even stronger factor, however, was that a half year after Phoenix's death, Kurt Cobain killed himself. It's odd that the cultural arithmetic reveals that our society has room for only one beautiful dead blond boy, but apparently we don't want too many symbols of snuffed potential. So River Phoenix is a half- remembered icon.

Had he gotten clean and stayed alive, however, I believe he would have found his way forward: he was a hugely gifted actor who wanted to do groundbreaking work, even when the people around him were encouraging him to just cash in on his good looks. I think there's every chance he would have grown into one of the leading actors of his generation.

BNR: The story you tell about the actor's childhood — especially the years his family was in Venezuela as part of the Children of God sect — raises the unnerving possibility that the actor's sensitivity in his various roles was a direct product of years of what look like neglect or even abuse. How much of his talent do you think came out of his early years and the attendant damage?

GE: This is always a discomfiting question: how much of great artistry comes out of childhood pain? Would the Beatles have ever happened if John Lennon and Paul McCartney hadn't lost their mothers at a young age? Since the world is not a laboratory experiment with a control group of other Liverpudlians, we'll never know for sure. It seems likely that River Phoenix's perspective on the world, askew from normal society, came from his unconventional upbringing: in the Children of God, on the streets of Caracas, largely outside traditional schools. That certainly was part of his gift: his actor's ability to observe characters unlike himself and then inhabit them. He didn't publicly draw the connection between those parts of his life, maybe because he didn't want to blame his parents for what he had gone through, maybe because the alchemy of what experiences had made up his own personality was mysterious, even to himself.

BNR: One of the things that becomes clear is that he was not immune to the allure of self-mythologizing. This was a guy, after all, who carried around a copy of Henry Miller's biography of Rimbaud. Was the separation of illusion and reality a problem for Phoenix?

GE: I think self-mythologizing is a powerful thing for an artist. Lou Reed, who just passed away, was one of our greatest rock stars in no small part because of his abilities in that department. The ability to live inside a character's skin also grants you the ability to make yourself into somebody new away from the camera, which was something River had to do over and over, as his family kept moving around the world. Where it became a problem was specifically with drugs. If you tell enough people, with enough force, that you don't have a problem, you can convince yourself that it's true.

BNR: You make a case for Nancy Savoca's Dogfight as River Phoenix's best role — despite the movie's commercial failure back when it was released. Dogfight was recently adapted as an Off-Broadway musical — a sign that the film's long-term reputation might be evolving? GE: For those who have never seen it: Dogfight is set in November 1963 and stars Phoenix as a marine about to ship out to Vietnam. In his one night off in San Francisco, he invites a plain coffee shop waitress with dreams of being a folk singer (played by Lili Taylor) to a party that is actually a "dogfight": a contest among the marines to see who can bring the ugliest date. When she finds out, she is rightly furious, but despite this horrible beginning, they spend the night together, walking around the city, gradually revealing their dreams and their inner selves to each other. It's a lovely, nuanced movie, and it utterly baffled the studio, which unceremoniously dumped it with a minimal release. While it doesn't have the cult following of Sneakers or even Explorers, to name two other Phoenix movies, I think it has gradually found an audience over the past couple of decades (as evidenced by the musical). A particularly fine discussion of it came a few years back, in an online conversation between the critics Sheila O'Malley and Matt Zoller Seitz.

BNR: The sequence of events that led to his death feature a large group of people, most of them close to the actor, who seemed incapable of getting him medical help when he needed it, despite very obvious signs that he was sick. Is it fair to say he died due to a collective failure on the part of those who were there?

GE: In the months before his death, Phoenix successfully dissembled, convincing many of the people around him that he didn't actually have a problem with drugs. I think it was a collective failure, certainly, but a common one, born of a generous impulse: wanting to believe in the best version of the young man they knew. On the night Phoenix died, many of the people with him were young themselves and understandably panicked by a medical emergency. His sister, Rain, was twenty years old; his brother, Joaquin (then called Leaf by many people), had turned nineteen that week. In hindsight, it's clear that their big brother's chances of survival would have improved if an ambulance had been called promptly, but if I had been in their shoes, I don't know that I would have handled the situation any better.

BNR: Has writing about River Phoenix's life changed the way you seem him onscreen?

GE: It's easy to overstate the connection between actors and their parts. River Phoenix didn't write (most of) the dialogue he spoke on screen, and as a teenager, his ability to steer his career had limits. That said, there are an extraordinary number of moments where his life and his movie roles seemed to be running in parallel, and I highlight them in the book in a series of chapters slugged "Echo." To pick a few: in Running on Empty, he played the eldest son of a family of '60s hippies who constantly moved around and changed their names (true in life). In The Mosquito Coast, Phoenix was again the eldest son of a family trying to step away from mainstream American culture, even moving south of the American border. And in Stand By Me, Phoenix's character literally fades off the screen at the end of the movie, as the narrator describes his senseless death at a young age. Knowing these areas of personal overlap inevitably changes how one watches his movies — I believe it enriches the experience.

October 31, 2013

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 15 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 5, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    An amazing book! Filled with introspection on River Phoenix's li

    An amazing book! Filled with introspection on River Phoenix's life, his fall into drug abuse, his untimely death outside the Viper Room, and the Hollywood he left behind. A true star whose time came too soon. Five stars.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Last Night at the Viper Room is a story of the death of rising s

    Last Night at the Viper Room is a story of the death of rising star River Phoenix. He had such a promising life ahead of him. The book talks about his drug addiction and death. It is very interesting.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 15, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Gavin Edwards is a brilliant author. The book Last Night at The

    Gavin Edwards is a brilliant author. The book Last Night at The Viper Room is a tribute to the tragic O.D. of River Phoenix, his brilliant career, and his untimely death. River could have been one of the true greats, but as the book points out - we will never know. A highly recommended book.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2013

    Wow

    How sad can that get ? Dying from drugs. Yet i am not surprised by this . But i do feel bad for his family

    3 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2013

    Never heard of him

    Rsvp

    1 out of 25 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 25, 2014

    So Sad

    I remember some things about River Phoenix and reading this book made him more real to me. He was quite a good young man, though he was lead down the wrong path. I think he would've been a great actor and had a good future, had he stayed away from the drugs. I was fascinated in his personality and responsible attitude, but I was also sad knowing that River was going to die and leave the family that loved him. The writing was good and the author had really done his homework. The acting world truly suffered a loss at his death. I had trouble putting the book down, because it was written so well to River's memory. I enjoyed reading about his family as well.

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    Posted March 3, 2014

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    Posted November 17, 2013

    Shooter

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    Posted November 17, 2013

    Lilyrose

    She enters.

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    Posted November 17, 2013

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    Posted November 9, 2013

    snakeclan

    leader's den for snakeclan

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