Everything in life seemed to come to actor River Phoenix before he was ready for it. Death, too.
As the eldest child of free-spirited parents who moved to South America to evangelize, he was just 6 when he sang on street corners in Venezuela for money to support a growing family. Involvement in the Children of God movement may have led him to become sexually active, if not abused, before he was 10.
Phoenix was singing for spare change in Los Angeles with three of his four younger siblings when a Hollywood agent spotted him. He became a teenage star—and continued as the family's breadwinner—with "Stand by Me" and "The Mosquito Coast" (both 1986) though he had never been to school, had only a rudimentary education and had no training as an actor.
He was smoking marijuana and trying cocaine before he could have a driver's license—heroin would come later. An Oscar nominee at 18 with "Running on Empty" (1988) and an adult star with "My Own Private Idaho" (1991), Phoenix was dead at 23. He suffered drug-induced convulsions outside the Viper Room, Johnny Depp's Sunset Boulevard club in Los Angeles.
"Last Night at the Viper Room," by rock journalist Gavin Edwards, presents Phoenix's vibrant if short life in the context of the culture that overwhelmed him.
His innocence was his charm as well as his flaw. People took advantage of him—particularly those who thrust so much responsibility on his young shoulders and those who brought him to drugs at an early age. Would the militant vegan be alive today had he become an organic farmer instead of the young Indiana Jones?
As Edwards notes, Phoenix was at the head of a new generation of actors. So many of his contemporaries—Ethan Hawke, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kiefer Sutherland, Brad Pitt, Christian Slater and Depp among them—faced their own personal and professional challenges but made it to their 30s. Many became stars through roles that might have gone to Phoenix had had his grip on life been more sure.
This was no tortured soul, just a lost one. "The guy was having a good time, but he made a big mistake and now he's not here," Depp, who was onstage at the Viper Room when Phoenix died, remarked not long afterward. Recalling that Phoenix had come with his guitar, Depp added, "That's not an unhappy kid."
Edwards' sensitive biography builds just the right tone for looking back at Phoenix's life 20 years after his death: respect for his talents, admiration for his individuality and a subtle indignation for the tragedy to come.
Why hasn't River Phoenix become an icon like actor James Dean, another generation's gone-too-soon totem? Edwards notes that five months after Phoenix's death came the suicide of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. "Apparently," Edwards writes, "the nineties had room for only one angel-faced blond boy, too pained by the world to live in it."
More likely, and Edwards suggests this, Phoenix's filmography is too thin. He appeared in just 13 movies of varying quality and starred in only a handful of those, and his roles were too diverse to fix him in the public mind. His brother Joaquin is the Phoenix making a lasting mark in movies.
Yet it's this lack of distinction that might allow River Phoenix to be rediscovered by audiences not burdened by what could have been. Instead, they might see an actor who brings emotional power and truth to a role. That would be a legacy worthy of lost promise.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).