I chose to buy Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind almost instantaneously after reading the sample chapter about the filming of My Own Private Idaho that was published on grantland.com earlier this week. I’ve always thought River Phoenix had some great performances and was a likeable actor, and it was his lack of a bad boy persona that made his famous death from drugs twenty years ago surprising. He also happened to be in some of my favorite movies as a kid, including Explorers and Stand By Me. Later on I would really appreciate movies like Running on Empty and The Thing Called Love where he played younger adults.
So here’s what made me desire to get this book so quickly based on the sample and subsequently reading the book in a couple days time: it’s got what qualifies as some really terrific Hollywood gossip that’s all wrapped around the fascinating and tragic story of the Phoenix Family. And– that’s a really interesting distinction here which I will come back to in a moment. But first, who are some of the famous folks you will you read about in this book who crossed into the life of River Phoenix? Keanu Reeves, Ethan Hawke, Sidney Poitier, Johnny Depp, Dan Akyroyd, Gus Van Sant, Harrison Ford, Joaquin Phoenix (of course!), Christina Applegate, Samantha Mathis, Martha Plimpton, Mick Jagger, Michael Stipe, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many others. The author for some reason I couldn’t quite understand also frequently references the band known as The Butthole Surfers (perhaps that is one of his favorite bands). But anyway, if you are into stories behind movies and the relationships between a lot of late 1980s and early 90s young actors, this book is for you. Or if like the show Entourage, imagine it starring River Phoenix and that’s the kind of book you get here.
What the book is largely about thematically and biographically is how so many of River’s actions were rooted in his family’s bizarre circumstances that also then defined his own. As one other reviewer wrote about this book on Amazon, it’s “dark. dark. dark.” I would not have used that word given the author’s upbeat and jovial tone throughout the book, but it’s easy to see why so many people would be charmed by Phoenix but simultaneously not understand him. His family belonged to a cult for a long and formative period, which also included as a consequence just about every traumatic experience you could imagine possible as well as a very bizarre incident that turned him into a staunch animal activist and vegan. I won’t spoil the interesting details here, but River did not choose to talk about all of these experiences with people he made friends with, passing from one movie to the next (or one gig to the next when he was trying to get his band off the ground). This is also why you will learn his off-on relationship with drugs was a challenge for people to understand and was actually more serious than it appeared. He rarely stayed in one place for very long, constantly shifting from project to project.
Sometimes the quotes and conservations referenced in the book from River and others are so detailed and well-remembered it’s hard to believe they could all be accurate. The author notes that River himself liked playing games with reporters and the media, but largely backs up his own interviews and research with a short chapter that references the secondary sources where major details, quotes, and information came from.
But if reading this review and others is getting you excited, then by all means dive in. It’s a fun read even though it obviously leads toward a tragic conclusion. But it’s not entirely a downer though. I got the sense that River was a very passionate, optimistic, and fun person to be around — and this inspired other people. So through his recounted experiences and devotion to improving his craft as an actor, we can find some inspiration ourselves in how to live life.
As a final note, I discovered that many of River’s films can be watched on Youtube, including Running on Empty and My Own Private Idaho, considered to be among his best even though they are more obscure. Some key scenes that are referenced in the book can be viewed this way as well.