Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind, By Gavin Edwards: Book review

A portrait of River Phoenix as a naive innocent

Emily Jupp
Wednesday 27 November 2013 23:15

Gavin Edwards, a Rolling Stone journalist, draws a portrait of River Phoenix, an actor who had been compared to James Dean and Montgomery Clift even before he died of an overdose in 1993, outside the Viper Room, a Hollywood club for film royalty then owned by Johnny Depp. He was 23.

Phoenix was a fresh-faced poster boy for veganism and Edwards carefully examines how he ended up a drug addict. Phoenix's upbringing offers some clues; he was raised by the ostensibly peace-loving Children of God cult, whose members believed children were sexual beings. Phoenix was also the main breadwinner for his drifter parents and four siblings, including brother Joaquin

Short inserts of background material include details of Phoenix's films and updates on the state of play in "young Hollywood". References to Phoenix's contemporaries Leonardo DiCaprio, and Johnny Depp are fascinating, and perhaps deliberately concise – any longer and they might risk obscuring Phoenix's story with characters who are more interesting because they are still here to light up our screens.

Edwards has a knack for leading us down a path of questioning then stopping short. Did Joaquin, for instance, only take on more film roles after River's death because his family needed a replacement breadwinner? Was he jealous of River's charisma? There's only one page devoted to this, where Joaquin denies having any feelings about his brother, despite being the one who made the 911 call on the night of River's death. Surely guilt or sadness might be natural, but deeper analysis of their relationship is curtailed.

A picture emerges of Phoenix as an innocent, unable to cope with the Hollywood machine. Sexually abused as a child, he was uncomfortable with his sex-symbol status and may have experimented with gay sex to prepare for his role in My Own Private Idaho, in which he played a prostitute opposite Keanu Reeves.

But ultimately the biography leaves the reader unsatisfied as it lapses into "too good for this world" cliché. Trite second-hand interviews with the late actor's friends show he was kind, vulnerable, uneducated and a bit naive, uttering statements such as: "I'm against the nuclear arms race and apartheid in South Africa and cruelty to animals, which means I'm a vegetarian."

Equally, Phoenix's parents are presented as stereotypical hippies, wanting to "change the world". Phoenix was supposed to be the conduit for delivering their "message" but we are left wondering what that message might have been.

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