Monday, October 21, 2013

Last Night At The Viper Room by Gavin Edwards

Last Night At The Viper Room by Gavin Edwards
Release Date - October 22, 2013
Publisher Website -  Harper Collins
Publisher Social Media - Twitter/Facebook/SavvyReader
Pages - 288 pages
My Rating - 4/5
**obtained for review from publisher**

Here is the Goodreads synopsis
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.
Gavin Edwards takes River's name and makes an anagram. Viper Heroin X. A sadly prolific anagram to how River's life would end. October 31st will mark 20 years since River Phoenix's passing. A young talent, a son, a brother, a friend who died too soon. His impact on Hollywood, and those who he knew is still felt today, and this novel examines not only his life, but the culture that River was part of.

I was hesitant to pick this up. I remember seeing Stand By Me, and My Own Private Idaho and being totally blown away by how talented River Phoenix was in both those movies. I quickly became a fan of his work, and saddened that he would never reach his full potential. Needless to say, I am glad I picked this one up. The author takes a more gentle, less sensational approach. Nothing is glossed over, but it's handled extremely well. You see the devastation drug use has on a person, and how easily it is to spiral. The novel looks at drug use, and it's effect on those who use. River is described as a mess close to his death, with him being almost unrecognizable to some of his friends and loved ones. He jumped from group to group and as a result  nobody seemed to know how out of control his drug use had become.

The novel is clearly made up of research, rather than new interviews. It doesn't showcase a lot of new information and most of it is taken from interviews that were done previously. As 20 years have passed, this may have been the best solution. The answers given by various people would have been the most resonate at the time and memories clearer. I was struck by a quote from River's on/off girlfriend Martha Plimpton
"(River is) already being made into a martyr. He's become a metaphor for a fallen angel, a messiah. He wasn't. He was just a boy, a very good-hearted boy who was very f-cked-up and had no idea how to implement his good intentions. I don't want to be comforted by his death. I think it's right that I'm angry about it, angry at the people who helped him stay sick, and angry at River."
What gets me the most is the emotion behind it. She's right to be angry. It's the quote that stayed with me long after I finished the book because of it's unflinchingly honesty. Nobody wants to say it, but I applaud her for doing so.

The brief glimpse of who River was made my heart ache even more. He seemed like one of the most caring, sweet, gentle people. River's passion seemed to be not with acting, but with music. He also was deeply involved in various charities and an advocate for animal rights. It's this kindness and spirit that made everyone flock to him. He, by all accounts, held firm in what he believed, and loved to debate with people. His childhood, by accounts, may not have been a happy one. River himself called it "interesting" when asked if his childhood had been happy. Regardless, he had been influenced by that upbringing and that fact is woven into the novel beautifully.

The inclusion of chapters where you see the rise (and fall) of some of the hottest stars that were coming into the scene around this time. It's interesting to note that a group of great actors were just starting out at this time. The 'what if' section was particularly sobering. The author inquires what roles River may have taken on instead of other actors (some examples were Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp). River was in talks to star in The Man In The Iron Mask before his death, and the role ultimately went to Leonardo DiCaprio. He was also interested in The Basketball Diaries, another role Leonardo is well known for. It's heartbreaking because River's talent was evident, and he had potential to grow as an actor. The questions of what he might of done is haunting. 

If you're into pop culture, you'll appreciate the little facts about young hollywood at the time. Johnny Depp acquiring the Viper Room. Leonardo Dicaprio wanting to meet River at the last party he attended. The Two Coreys and their behaviour at the time. The Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp glamour couple starting out, and ending. It's these little details that made the novel a gossip lover's dream. The author never allows you to forget that this is River's story though. He uses this to contrast what is going on in River's life. River referred to LA as "the bad bad town". It appeared he knew it was a bad place for him to be, but tragically was drawn back again, and again.

The novel paints River as a kindhearted, conflicted, troubled young man who sadly died too young. As a fan of River's performances, I was riveted by this novel. It'll give you a brief insight into his background. It left me with an ache that his talent did not get to grow into it's fullest potential and that a young life was needlessly ended too soon.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful words about River Phoenix and your review of Last Night At the Viper Room.

    Has it really been almost twenty years? It seems just like yesterday that my nineteen year old self picked up a newspaper and began to read what I at first thought was a simple appreciation of River's acting, no doubt leading in to a plug for his upcoming roles in Dark Blood and Interview With the Vampire. So imagine my disbelief when I discovered that one of the shining lights of my generation had passed away. In those innocent days just after his death, drugs - at least for me - never even entered my mind as a possibility for his abrupt passage.

    As the years have sped on by faster than I care to think about, I like to remember Phoenix for his role in Nancy Savoka's little gem of a film, Dogfight. In it, he plays a young marine about to be shipped out overseas. The title of the film stems from a cruel contest Phoenix and his fellow marines have in which they seek out "ugly" dates. The girl River's marine picks (lovingly played by Lili Taylor) sees through the lies and the cruelty and gleans just a bit of the lost boy swept up in a situation that he really is too good to be a part of. Looking back on this little film that came out back in 199, I can't help but see River Phoenix as an extension of his Dogfight character: A beautiful soul corrupted by a situation that was way beyond his control.

    God speed, River Phoenix. I miss you every day.

  2. Kat, I know I have said this before, but heed my words. This is your best review yet, all starting with the first sentence of that haunting anagram. Great job. Loved your inclusion of and further comment on Martha Plimpton's quote, as well as the nod to 90's pop culture in the second last bit. And all of the "what might have been". This really makes me appreciate life and all the friends and family I have, as it can end in a second. Be grateful for long lives.

    Amy :D <3


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