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Review: Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind by Gavin Edwards

About the Book

In Last Night at the Viper Room, acclaimed author and journalist Gavin Edwards vividly recounts the life and tragic death of acclaimed actor River Phoenix—a teen idol on the fast track to Hollywood royalty who died of a drug overdose in front of West Hollywood’s storied club, the Viper Room, at the age of 23.

Last Night at the Viper Room explores the young star’s life, including his childhood in Venezuela growing up under the aegis of the cultish Children of God. Putting him at the center of a new generation of leading men emerging in the early 1990s— including Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, and Leonardo DiCaprio—Gavin Edwards traces the Academy Award nominee’s meteoric rise, couches him in an examination of the 1990s, and illuminates his lasting legacy on Hollywood and popular culture itself.


I did not pick this book up because I am a 90's nostalgist or a film buff, but because my brother had mentioned the name River Phoenix before and had been struck with a genuine feeling of sorrow at this young man's loss. As I read this book, I came to find out that this feeling was one that was shared by those who knew River and those who only saw his movies alike. 

This book is thorough, tracing River's life from start to finish. It gives readers an intimate view into a life lost too soon and has a solemn way of reminding you of that impending death time after time. Yet, at the same time we are given glimpses into beautiful moments of a young man who touched the lives of others deeply, and we come to understand him as someone who was a free thinker and full of love for his fellow man, showing this through his passion for music and acting.

As it goes with most truly biographical works, this one comes with great sadness and trauma as well as moments of wisdom and hilarity. It is a book that is easily read, not at all stagnating in its writing style. The unique thing about this biography in particular is Edwards' uncanny ability to not only move the reader along the path of River's life, but also reveal the changing landscape of Hollywood and its actors and actresses of the time. 

Before reading this book, the only movie I had watched of River's was Stand By Me, so I didn't particularly have of an opinion of him, but coming out of this book, my heart aches for those who have lost genuine friends and family in sudden, tragic accidents. It is heartbreaking to read of young lives lost, especially particularly unique ones, and River's was no exception. The loss of River Phoenix had a profound butterfly effect on Hollywood and perhaps, in turn, the world.

Reviewed by Amy Richardson

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