River Phoenix was 23-years-old when he died on the sidewalk outside of the Viper Room. And given his childhood – raised in the Children of God cult, forced to panhandle in the streets of South America to feed his family, and serving as the main source of income for his parents and siblings for the rest of his short life – it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he would have gone on and lived a long, happy, carefree life for decades to follow.
Tragic is almost always over used to describe the death of a celebrity, but it’s difficult to find another term in talking about the life and death of Phoenix, a child star trying to transition into more serious adult roles, while living with a past that had to have some serious psychological affect. In Last Night at the Viper Room, Gavin Edwards does an impressive job of taking the typical Hollywood bio and bring it to life, by taking the focus off of his prime target at times and covering the lives of those in the periphery, like Viper club owner and fellow actor/struggling rock star Johnny Depp, and contemporaries like Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio. All give a contrast and context to the life of Edwards’ main subject.
While a lot of Phoenix’s background has been covered in the past, unspooling like a truly salacious episode of E True Hollywood Story, Edwards does a commendable job of filling in the details that had been hinted at in the past, but never really discussed in detail, (including news that Phoenix was initiated into sex at a very early age thanks to the cult his parents were a part of for the actor’s early years).
In addition, while many know Phoenix died of a drug-induced heart failure on the sidewalk outside the club, most assumed the death was the result of a raucous night of drugging. Gavin, in fact, details that Phoenix was actually handed a drink from a buddy and not told what was inside (a mix of heroin and cocaine) not that long before his demise. It can be argued that Phoenix, at that point in his life well versed in both drugs, likely wouldn’t have turned down the drink if he knew what it contained, Edwards sheds new light on the hours and moments before the actor’s death.
Last Night at the Viper Room is a fascinating and grizzly look into the life and death of a promising actor.