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review 2014-02-06 11:40
I've nobody to blame but myself...
Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind - Gavin Edwards

Have you ever got a book knowing fully that not only will you probably dislike it but it'll probably infuriate and upset you a bit, but you had to get it anyway because you're curious and weirdly interested in the subject matter? And then when that book made you madder than even you thought it would, you just want to scream but you know that you did it all to yourself?


Yeah, this was me with this book.


Some background.


When I was about 10, my mum made me watch Stand By Me. It's one of her favourite films and it became one of mine. To this day, it's in my top 20 favourite films of all time. It's a perfect film. Like most people who saw it, I became rather interested in River Phoenix, although as I got older the focus changed more to his brother, who remains probably my favourite actor (and teen crush - shut up). They're an interesting family & of course, one with very tragic elements. So of course River Phoenix's very short life was ripe for a biography. 


This one, however, is kind of reprehensible.


First, from a stylistic point of view, the author has some issues. His attempt to create a cultural context surrounding Phoenix's brief time in the spotlight falls flat since he seems to have no idea how to organically integrate it into the narrative. A pretty linear biography is interspersed with tidbits on the Viper Room (the club where he died) and general information on other rising stars in the film industry at the time. Basically an actor is named, their projects at the time and then another is mentioned. This is repeated over and over again and feels lazy. If you want to read a non-fiction book where context is organically and substantially given for a time period, read Nixonland. 


Second, and the biggest issue with the book, is the general tone of it all. It's one thing to offer a comment on a stranger's life; it's quite another to delve into unqualified pseudo psychiatric analysis that makes Dr Drew look dignified. E! News would offer less callous material. The author is pretty openly judgemental about the Phoenix family's life (which is pretty odd to say the least but if you're going to judge then at least develop the context further. The author's offerings feel rushed and lacking in anything really substantial that hasn't been written before. Wikipedia feels like the main source here aside from anonymous sources.) 


I understand the urge to seek answers from a tragedy. It's a natural human instinct. We see it every day in our lives and in the media. Right now it's going on with the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (an actor I basically worshipped and cried over a lot when I heard the news). Honestly, I get that.


I get why non-addicts try to understand the minds of addicts and I even sympathise somewhat when they struggle to understand because it's a tough situation. Addiction is an illness, one that requires us to not judge and to not sneer. We can't laugh or roll our eyes and claim they should have just never taken drugs or should have just stopped. It doesn't work like that. We can't turn it into a blame game.


We certainly don't spend 200+ pages insinuating that someone's family are to blame for their death.


The author clearly doesn't like Phoenix's family, but to lay the blame at their feet (mostly at those of his parents and brother) is low. National Enquirer low. Then, to rub salt in the wound, the author theorises that Joaquin Phoenix's career success and "weirdness" is the result of his brother dying and his guilt over that. I honestly couldn't believe what I read. It's coded but it's there. If you've ever heard the 911 call Joaquin Phoenix made on the night of his brother's death, you'd know it's one of the most upsetting things ever, and the media released that in the aftermath of River's death.


The total lack of basic decency on display here makes me wonder what the author was thinking when he began to write this insensitive & exploitative mess (actually I know exactly what he was thinking. "Hey, I could churn out something in time for the 20th anniversary of his death! I'm a genius!")


Maybe I'm just especially sensitive right now because of Philip Seymour Hoffman or because I'm a big fan of the people at the centre of it, but this was a waste of my time and I only really have myself to blame. Don't waste your time with this. Go watch Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho instead. 

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review 2013-11-23 00:00
Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind
Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind - Gavin Edwards I must first note that I was too young to care about River Phoenix or his generation of actors, I only came to see his movies after his death as a child. In addition, I've only ever seen two of his movies: the Indiana Jones he was in briefly and Stand By Me. I read Last Night at the Viper Room to gain more insight into his as a person and understand what happened to him. I was especially intrigued as a fellow vegan and environmentalist.

However, this book does not focus enough on River at all and the author's writing style quickly grew annoying. What was with all the choppy chapters and headings? Were they really necessary? There was no flow, everything felt forced and distant. I felt no need to hear about all the other actors of the same generation when this book was supposed to be about River Phoenix. Edwards constantly tried to tie other actors into the story even when they didn't fit, like Michael J. Fox, Johnny Depp (way overboard there) and numerous others. According to Edwards book, River's existence and death were the reasons for many famous actors' careers. While there may be a hint of truth I felt he took this road a bit too far.

Honestly I am continually baffled by the correlation between acting or music and self-destruction. The prevalence of drugs and alcohol makes me wonder how anyone makes it out of Hollywood alive, especially when you add in the fearless, indestructible attitude of so many youth. I find it interesting that in many regards River's clean image survives to this day despite his way of death and his downward spiral prior to it. It seemed to me that he was on the road to death but the guitarist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers certainly helped him along. (Oddly the author does not name the guy who gives River the alcohol laced with the speedball, although it can easily be found online.) River may be pegged as smart by this book but he was clearly lacking wits when it came to self-preservation.

I did, however, enjoy hearing how devoted River was to veganism. I share his passion and wonder if had he been clean and alive if he would have made a difference in the world. His environmentalism was hardly touched upon, although I did wonder if Leonardo DiCaprio somehow began his environmental journey due to River (although their link was mainly Leo getting roles meant for River after his death).

And clearly his family was well off the rocker, with their cults and such. As the oldest child of that crazy group he was put in an unenviable role and I don't doubt that it greatly impacted him.

On one hand I would have liked more information on River and less attempts from the author to include anyone and everyone in that era of acting. But on the other hand, I generally find I have little interest in discussing film (or even watching it often) or actors, so this book may have been unsuccessful for me regardless. However, someone from that generation and interested in these actors will likely find more to like. But if you are looking for a focus on River Phoenix I cannot say this fits the bill.

But if you think any author calling Jerry O'Connell a "hunk" is suspect, I don't recommend this book. I'm baffled myself.

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review 2013-10-18 00:00
Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind
Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind - Gavin Edwards This review and others are posted at Inspiring Insomnia.

Way back when, River Phoenix was the object of my massive, teenage crush. Depending on your age, you might be nodding your head in agreement, or you might be asking yourself: “Who in the hell is that?” For those of you in the latter group, you might be more familiar with his younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix. River Phoenix was a child star who grew into a successful, Oscar-nominated actor until he overdosed outside of a Hollywood nightclub in 1993, at the age of twenty-three. My crush was over by that point, but I remember being so surprised, because the story line about Phoenix was that he was a clean-living vegan, and the idea that he died of a drug overdose was unthinkable.

Last Night at the Viper Room examines Phoenix’s brief life, beginning with his upbringing in what could politely be called a commune, but would more accurately be described as a cult. Sexual abuse of children was common and even encouraged, and Phoenix was a victim. In an all-too-familiar theme, Phoenix’s family tried to turn all their children into starts, beginning by forcing them to conduct musical performances on the streets for money. River soon became the family breadwinner when he began to land legitimate acting jobs. Today, we could create an endless list of fallen former child stars, but in the early nineties, before websites like TMZ exposed bad behavior for all to see, Phoenix was able to keep his drug addiction a secret from the public. Even while he wasted away and became more of a liability on film sets, he promoted his supposedly healthy lifestyle in interviews. All around him were the enablers who ignored the problem, because they were dependent on him for income: his family, his manager, his various directors. His death could not have come as a surprise to any of them.

Because Phoenix’s life was so short, Last Night at the Viper Room is equal parts biography and a look at the society in the early nineties among Phoenix and his acting peers, including Johnny Depp, who owned the nightclub where Phoenix overdosed. The book charts the early careers of other young actors at the time, including Depp, Brad Pitt, and Keanu Reeves, and the less successful/more depressing cases like Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. There’s not a a great deal of new information here, although it’s clearly well-researched and well-sourced. Missing are interviews with any of Phonenix’s family members, but that is not terribly surprising. I don’t think this book would be very interesting to people who aren’t already aware of Phoenix, unless they have a particular interest in the young celebrity culture of the early nineties. But for me, it was both an interesting and depressing path down memory lane.
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review 2013-10-15 16:45
It wasn't all in my head!
Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind - Gavin Edwards

While they were sleeping, River had died on the Sunset Strip. The world had changed overnight.


A long, time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away (also known as high school), a friend introduced me to a movie titled Dogfight, about a group of young military men who have a contest to see who can bring the ugliest date. No, this was not like Dinner for Schmucks. My friend and I watched that movie several times at her house, and then I never saw it again. Over the years, I've mentioned it to a few people, who hadn't heard of it. I tried checking Netflix and Amazon and other services which stream movies for me and it was nowhere to be found. My husband thinks I'm crazy when I talk about this movie which "doesn't exist." 


I was MOTHER EFFING right that this was an actual movie (one which only made less than 400k and wasn't widely released), and I just found out that River Phoenix was in it! Thank you to this book I read for restoring my sanity!


Anyway, random story aside, let's go back to River himself. One of my male friends hates it when males are called beautiful, but every single time I see River, the word pops into my head (along with other, less fortunate words). Let me show you what I mean...

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