Twenty years later, the overdose death of a promising young actor doesn’t seem to be quite enough to fill a book, even one as well-written as this one.
River Phoenix (1970–1993) was only 23 when he died, and though he’d shown a precocious talent as a child actor and singer, he’d only made two movies of note (Stand by Me and My Private Idaho) before an addict’s carelessness let him swallow something he shouldn’t have. A veteran pop-culture writer for magazines, Edwards (’Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy and Other Misheard Lyrics, 1995) has the makings of a solid article in this commemoration of the actor’s death, life and career, but the context he provides feels like padding: the career progressions of other actors of the same generation, production details of films best forgotten, speculation on what he might have achieved if he hadn’t died, and the history of the Viper Room and its owner, Johnny Depp, whose connection with Phoenix otherwise seems tenuous at best. The book is more researched than reported, relying on other books and magazines as well as a few interviews with those who were mainly on the periphery of the actor’s life. The early material about his parents, hippies who succumbed to a sexually promiscuous religious sect, makes for fascinating reading, but his descent into drugs is familiar and sad, a decline further undermined by denial. In the tick-tock narrative of his final hours, his brother Joaquin responded, after others were alarmed by the sidewalk seizures and suggested he call 911, “He’s fine, he’s fine.” Depp apparently didn’t recognize the figure causing the commotion outside his club. But the strict vegan with the warm heart, strong work ethic and increasingly debilitating drug excess needed help long before that.
For Phoenix fans who want to relive that night and mourn what might have been.