If River Phoenix had survived that night at the Viper Room, he'd be 43. That's a sobering thought for any Gen X-er — right up there with the fact that the swimming baby on the cover of Nevermind is now 22 and Eminem's daughter Hailie Jade is the homecoming queen. Somehow Hailie was always supposed to stay that little kid asking “Daddy what are you doing?” in “My Dad's Gone Crazy” — and River Phoenix was always supposed to stay young and beautiful. His death at 23, triggered by a hastily gulped speedball in the wee hours of the morning of October 31, 1993, seems inevitable.
But it wasn't. As Gavin Edwards details in his enormously compelling new biography of Phoenix and his era, Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind, the actor didn't take that speedball knowingly. “A guitarist friend” handed him a cup and told him, “Hey, Riv, drink this — it'll make you feel fabulous.” It didn't. Almost immediately he shouted, “What did you give me? What the fuck is in it?” Valium didn't help; soon Phoenix was vomiting on the table, and soon after that, he was convulsing on a Sunset Boulevard sidewalk.
These days, you can find audio online of his brother Joaquin Phoenix's desperate 911 call, and even if you are the sort of looky-loo who's riveted by such horrible things, it will still break your heart. The ambulance rushed River Phoenix to Cedars-Sinai, but he'd already been in full cardiac arrest for 20 minutes. In less than an hour, he was pronounced dead.
It's a terribly sad ending, and parts of his life weren't all that much happier. Born River Jude Bottom (say it without the middle name — yikes) to a pair of well-meaning hippies, he grew up in the newly formed Children of God cult, which infamously encouraged both incest and adultery. “Children as young as three were encouraged to 'play' sexually with their parents and other adults,” Edwards reports. “But even greater emphasis was put on the children stimulating each other; they could pair off for sexual exploration at night, after prayers but before bed.”
Phoenix later told Details magazine that he wished he'd waited longer to “make love” — he was four when he first did so, he said, adding, “But I've blocked it out. I was completely celibate from ten to fourteen.”
It was a peripatetic life in the cult — as Edwards tells it, River was born in a small Oregon town and lived in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela before he was of kindergarten age, with his parents doing their best to proselytize in each new place. Since the cult didn't provide for its missionaries, the five Phoenix children were tasked with begging for the family's bread.
From there, it's perhaps not a huge step to becoming a child actor — once the family left the cult and settled in Southern California, it still fell upon River to earn the money to support the family. He started busking with his siblings, then progressed to commercials, and finally, in 1982, as a 12-year-old, earned a spot in a new CBS series, an adaptation of the old movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. From there, it was on to a series of unforgettable performances — Stand by Me, The Mosquito Coast, My Own Private Idaho.
He was beautiful in a heart-stopping, James Dean sort of way, but more importantly, he had genuine talent. Some co-workers were appalled by his naivete. Home-schooled, and not in a particularly organized way, River worshipped his quirky dad but seemed to have no awareness of just how much he didn't know, Edwards reports. But he nevertheless had a quality that impressed everyone who worked with him.
“One of the things that was most striking in researching this book is that almost everyone who met him was struck by how special he was,” Edwards says. “He had a spark; he had a light.” There is no mistaking what would have happened had he kicked his drug addiction, Edwards believes: “River would be one of the leading lights.”
Edwards never names the musician friend who handed Phoenix the drink containing that dissolved speedball. The family never took legal action, so “this person's identity is not a matter of public record,” he tells the Weekly. “Given the situation, I didn't think it was my place to name him.”
Beyond that, the book makes it clear that, really, it doesn't matter whether Phoenix knew what was in the cup — he'd have gulped it in anyway. He'd developed a serious drug problem, one that (despite his relatively clean reputation) had begun to affect his work, and in classic Hollywood fashion, everyone who should have confronted him had a vested interest in not pissing him off and thereby staying on the gravy train.
It didn't help that he'd always been convinced of his own invincibility.
“He was the guy who jumped off cliffs,” Edwards says. That's what gave made him magic to Hollywood, and that's what made Gen X — men and women alike — swoon. But such hubris has consequences, and now we're left with his movies, and Edwards' devastating book about what was, and what might have been.
Gavin Edwards discusses and signs Last Night at the Viper Room at 7 p.m. tonight at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood. He'll also be part of a screening of Phoenix's final film, Dark Blood, at the Aero Theater, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. A reception for all ticket holders begins at 6:30 p.m.; the film screens at 7:30 p.m. See americancinemathequecalendar.com/content/dark-blood for more details.