Saturday, October 19, 2013

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

Thanks to Edelweiss and It Books for allowing me to read an e-galley of this.  Back in the day (late 80's, early 90's) I was a huge fan of River Phoenix.  I was one of the girls they talk about in this book that read about him in the teeny bopper magazines like Teen Beat.  Now, I was a very naive teenager, until his death, I had no idea he did drugs. Probably a lot came from his anti-drug messages that he gave in public to his fans.  But then I had no idea Corey Haim and Corey Feldman were using drugs either, and people tell me now just to think about how thin Haim was and that it was obvious.  Again, I plead naivete.
This book was a great biography.  Told in an almost story-like way, it really captured my attention from the start, and didn't let go till the very end.  It was like a walk down memory lane to read about all the stuff going on in Hollywood during that time.  But it was a peek at it through the eyes of an insider.  Hearing about what his childhood was actually like, learning what his family really was like, and the possible abusive conditions he spent his early life in, again, explained so much about his life.  And yet it wasn't just about him with every detail.  As the title says, it also was about the Hollywood both when he was around, and that was left after he was gone.  Learning about Johnny Depp, and musical stars like Flea and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, not to mention older stars, such as Dan Aykroyd, Sam Shepard, and Harriosn Ford, as well as famous directors like Gus Van Zant.  At times I almost felt like we were playing a game of Six Degrees of Separation, just to hear all the actors and actresses that he came in contact with at some point was amazing.  While I remembered all of his brothers and sisters, I'd forgotten that his sister Summer was married to Casey Affleck.  I remember when Joaquin Phoenix was going by Leaf Phoenix.  There was even a mention of Norman Reedus, Daryl on The Walking Dead!!
Of course the connection to Johnny Depp was not real deep, they knew each other from both being from Gainesville, Florida, as well as River hanging out at Depp's Viper Room Club.  But comparisons were drawn of their careers all through the book, and honestly, in a way there were so many similarities.  Both chose films that weren't necessarily ones that would make them big stars, they chose based on what they wanted to do.  Both had directors that they really respected and wanted to work with.  Also we followed Christian Slater, Ethan Hawke, and even Keanu Reeves through their careers as they moved along, and how River influenced them.  To know that Hawke respected River to the degree that he did.  And then, the career of Leonardo DiCaprio was discussed as it began and where it intersected.  I do think that Leo and River kind of have the same look, and even some of the same choices in what acting jobs they took, as well as their commitments to causes.  Some of DiCaprio's successes could even be somewhat considered to have come about because of River's death.  Movies that were supposedly for River, went to Leo after his death.
River is portrayed as very sensitive, yet you can tell insecure.  He was obviously very intelligent, yet as the book points out, due to his lack of normal schooling, not as knowledgeable as you would normally expect about common things. To read about his dogs and family, and other stories that I remember reading about in those teen magazines brought a smile to my face as I read.  Reading about the moments leading up to his death brought tears to my eyes.  As big of a fan as I was, I now realize, I really didn't actually see very many of his movies.  I know for sure I saw Explorers, Stand By Me, and the Indiana Jones movie he was in, and I think I saw A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon - but I may only think I did from seeing all the pictures of him in the teen magazines that were shots from the movie.  I'm now on a mission to see the movies I missed, and the final movie that he died during the last part of filming of, is now supposedly available, on YouTube no less.
My rating of the book on Goodreads was a 4 out of 5.  And I may bump that up to a 5 once I actually see the book.  What was missing from my e-galley was the pictures that I would hope are included in the final published copy.  When the books comes out this Tuesday (my birthday), I will be sure to check for pictures.  I will buy it for myself if it contains pictures, and will then go and up my rating.
I know many teens today have no idea who River Phoenix was other than Joaquin's older brother, but this would be a great book for them to read, as I said to learn about so many stars from back then, as well as those that are still around.


  1. Oh man, I still remember where I was when I heard River Phoenix died--I was working in a mom and pop used bookstore and the news came on the radio, and I couldn't believe it! I liked him, but it wasn't even like I was a big fan, but it still upset me--he seemed so clean cut and full of promise. It's sad when anyone dies that young. :(

    Glad to hear this book did him justice.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

    1. It's true, as the book says, he was so anti-drug to his fans or public, that must be why it was such a shock. Definitely a good book to learn about him. Done in a very fair light.


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