BOOK REVIEW | "LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM: RIVER PHOENIX AND THE HOLLYWOOD HE LEFT BEHIND" BY GAVIN EDWARDS
photo & text by nacrowe
RIVER PHOENIX is a perplexing HOLLYWOOD figure even decades after his untimely passing in front of the VIPER ROOM in 1993. his echo can be felt in the interesting career choices of like-minded actors who have transformed the profession in his wake. from peers like ETHAN HAWKE, KEANU REEVES, BRAD PITT and CHRISTIAN SLATER to those that came just after like LEONARDO DICAPRIO and even his own brother JOAQUIN. but by and large he has been forgotten by general audiences, except those that look back with 1980s nostalgia at the kid's adventure STAND BY ME (COLUMBIA, 1986) or the TRANSGRESSIVE nature of his young adult turn in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (FINE LINE, 1991). his death was overshadowed six months later in the wake of the suicide of KURT COBAIN, a major cultural event that still has deep reverberations to this day. unlike COBAIN, it would seem in retrospect that PHOENIX was on the cusp, much like JAMES DEAN before him and HEATH LEDGER long after him, of his definitive work. his story is one of unfulfilled potential.
in LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM: RIVER PHOENIX AND THE HOLLYWOOD HE LEFT BEHIND (ATRIA, 2014) author GAVIN EDWARDS does a good job of contextualizing both PHOENIX's career and personal history within the context of YOUNG HOLLYWOOD during the late 80s and early 90s. PHOENIX is positioned as a foreign entity whose youth was experienced not just removed from the HOLLYWOOD system, but outside of AMERICAN CULTURE entirely. he grew up in an itinerate existence all over the UNITED STATES and later in VENEZUELA with a family deeply involved with the CHILDREN OF GOD cult, a predaotry group known for its advocation of INCEST and SEXUAL ABUSE of children among other major moral infractions. as a child, he and his four siblings literally busked around CARACAS, singing as beggars and lived sans-formal education and socialization. more than that, during this period as a child he was SEXUALLY ABUSED and EXPLOITED. it is beyond compelling that someone that removed from an AMERICAN experience was able to develop such an empathetic acumen for acting at a high level.
EDWARDS makes the connection between how difficult the transition was from eldest child to breadwinner while still a teen, effectively supplanting the internal POWER STRUCTURE within his family. for most of his career he was in control, but it came at the cost of having no father figure to guide him through a DRUG CULTURE that ultimately struck him down, as he died after ingesting a speedball at the VIPER ROOM on the SUNSET STRIP. i dont want to go so far as to say that EDWARDS portrays PHOENIX as a martyr, but he does present him as a cautionary figure. someone that made unfortunate choices that he could not turn back from. i think what this book does a good job of is presenting a community enables and preys on youth. i dont know how a young person with that much cultural CHARISMA and SWAY would not be tempted to indulge and partake in the seductive underbelly of the entertainment industry. ETHAN HAWKE is presented as a peer that worried about such issues from an early age and took active measures to mitigate such, writing poignant journal entries to his future self.
the death of PHOENIX almost feels like an ancient allegory, a narrative that is doomed to repeat itself, as our HUMAN NATURE hasnt evolved in the slightest. teh same forces that exploited his FRAILTIES are still in existence, probably even more intently with the advent of modern social media. theres a thought.
RIP RIVER PHOENIX.