LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM: RIVER PHOENIX AND THE HOLLYWOOD HE LEFT BEHIND
by GAVIN EDWARDS
River Phoenix was just 23 years old when he died following an overdose of heroin and cocaine. He died on the pavement outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room club on Halloween 1993. I was only 13 at the time and along with several of my classmates, did not take news of his death well. Being so young we hadn’t even seen his films but he was our misunderstood pretty-boy pin up who loved animals and wanted to save the rainforests. “R.I.P RIVER” we tippex-ed on our pencil cases.
Over 20 years on, his memory has faded though his devastatingly short life still holds intrigue for many of us. In his book, Gavin Edwards has brilliantly documented the troubled young actor’s life. We follow him from an unconventional childhood brought up by his hippy parents in a religious cult. He never went to school and the family moved around a lot throughout the U.S and Latin America. Later on during interviews, River would tell many different versions of his early years but it was largely understood that he was sexually active/abused in the cult and carried the burden of family breadwinner from an impossibly young age – encouraged to busk, beg and even scavenge to feed his parents and siblings.
This beautiful, blonde boy sang and played guitar on the streets and was soon noticed and began attending Hollywood auditions. This led initially to TV ads and small roles and an upswing in the Phoenix clan’s finances. His first big break came in the film Stand By Me. Although he went on to be Oscar nominated for his part in Running On Empty, Stand By Me is thought to be the jewel in River’s screen legacy.