His life began on August 23 in a pivotal year: 1970. River Phoenix was actually born River Jude Bottom, but he changed his surname later, as did the rest of his family.
John and Arlyn Bottom met when they were each on the road in the 60s, and continued their journey together as hippies, bent on changing the world and teaching the children they would eventually have a different, better way to live. They lived in Puerto Rico, among other distant places, but eventually settled on a compound in Florida after River’s movie-making success. River was the eldest of five children that included Rain, Joaquin (once called Leaf), Liberty, and Summer. All of the siblings performed musically and/or in film. But River took on the role of the family provider.
As I read Last Night at the Viper Room, my memories were rejuvenated with each mention of a movie River had made that I had enjoyed, like Stand By Me and Running on Empty. Other movies had a familiarity about them, but they did not resonate much with me, so it was interesting to learn more about how each film came to be cast with River, and how he seemed to have something unique and special that made him shine on the screen.
Until he no longer had that special ingredient due to drinking and drugs.
He had the ability to clean up his act periodically, enough so that his denial of a problem seemed credible. But those who watched and did nothing were certainly also in denial. That fatal night when River died in the early hours of October 31, 1993, would shake many of them to the core. But life went on, and even more celebrity deaths would take place in due time.
A sad story of a life cut short needlessly was also full of tidbits about other young actors from this era and what became of them, like Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samantha Mathis, and Martha Plimpton. As soon as I started reading about his life, his struggles, and his movies, I pulled one of my favorites from my shelves (Running on Empty)…and I’ll be watching it tonight. 4 stars.