Tuesday, October 22, 2013

One of These Nights

Published:  October 22, 2013
Last Night At The Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind
By: Gavin Edwards
It Books
ISBN-13:  9780062273154

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.


     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.*

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