PRETTY BOYS in the 1990s usually wore bulky corduroy jackets and tight hats too small to fit their heads, and that’s exactly what Mike (River Phoenix) is sporting when we first see him on the road in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). Phoenix’s performance as Mike–sweetly lost, feral, “who me?” sexy–paves the way for Jared Leto’s Jordan Catalano, for grunge and Kurt Cobain, and for the collected works of Ethan Hawke. Like many ‘90s pretty boys, Mike is a connoisseur of his own damaged feelings. He makes self-destruction look fatally appealing and glamorous. Phoenix was compared to James Dean in his own short life and career, and that’s because he had “love me!” pleas down to a science on screen and a similarly unhinged physicality that is sometimes closer to the Polish street theater ravings proscribed by acting theoretician Jerzy Grotowski than Dean’s more contained Actors Studio contortions.
A male prostitute who suffers from narcolepsy, Mike is forever getting stressed out and falling into sleep. On an Idaho highway, he touches his face in a self-conscious way, and we see his dirty-fingernailed hands start to quiver and his eyes start to shut as narcolepsy takes him and lays him out stiff on the pavement. Cut to time-lapse photographs of clouds scudding swiftly across infinite horizons.
River stares down a lonely Idaho highway, waiting for a sympathetic stranger to pick him up.
We next see a close-up of Mike’s left eyelid fluttering (his body is in Portland now). It seems to be vibrating in REM sleep, but as Mike opens his eyes they roll back into his head with receptive-blowjob pleasure. Van Sant cuts to a raging river in which jumping fish struggle upstream, and then a picture-postcard view of a lapping beach. Heaving breaths are heard on the soundtrack. Mike’s face starts to tilt up. Sweat begins to bead on his upper lip.
In a low shot of Mike’s knuckles tightening on the back of a rickety chair, we see the heavy, hairy arm of a man who’s obviously going to town on his helpless blondness. As Mike climaxes, Van Sant cuts to a shot of a plummeting wooden barn in the groaning second before it crashes onto a prairie road, busting into pieces. A hand tosses two ten dollar bills onto Mike’s chest, with its to-die-for tufts of hair and softly pouty nipples. The bills slide down into the crotch of his blue jeans and Mike zips up with the money inside, thus ending one of the most precisely erotic sequences in film history.
As Mike waits for another client on the streets of Seattle, Van Sant plays a scratchy record of Rudy Vallee crooning “Deep Night” on the soundtrack, a song that sets a ghostly-sexy mood. (the distant-sounding Vallee wrote that he was known in the 1920s as “the guy with the cock in his voice.”) Our hustler is soon spirited away by Daddy Carroll (Mickey Cottrell), a man who tells Mike that he was born on April 4, 1944, or 4-4-44, a lucky date, he claims. At this point, Mike takes his cue and gets into a little Dutch boy outfit so that he can clean up the “mess” in the apartment.
“Lucky” Mickey Cottrell leans in for a closer look at rent-boy River Phoenix.
A seated Daddy Carroll slides his feet all over the carpet like a demented toddler and then becomes a kind of temptress moaning, “Faster, little Dutch boy, harder!” as Mike scrubs and scrubs at already-clean furniture surfaces. Finally, we see this dream-freak john in a red dressing gown, his reddish, curly hair standing up on end as he coyly announces, “And now, my lucky 44th little Dutch boy, you must scrub Daddy Carroll!” It’s a breathtaking scene. Daddy Carroll is so grotesque by the time he’s in his red dressing gown that he somehow comes out the other end of grotesquerie and winds up being disturbingly beautiful and alluring. He stops being the gay little kid he is inside and the gay middle-aged man he is in reality and briefly transforms into the sexy woman he sees inside his head for a few scalding, magic moments.
Cottrell was a film publicist in 1991 (he still is) and he had rarely acted before he played Daddy Carroll in My Own Private Idaho. According to Van Sant, Cottrell wrote the role himself and came up with all kinds of material, but the movie only had time for the peaks of what he wrote. Van Sant was so open to his collaborators on this film that he often let them take the lead, and this led to bravura things like the Daddy Carroll sequence but also to a fatal unevenness, lopsidedness and lack of focus. This is a difficult film to consider as a whole, or as the invention of only one person, but so much of what works in it works so strongly that My Own Private Idaho is a seminal movie for many people. It certainly has been for me.
William Richert (center, in red belt) plays Falstaff to Keanu’s Prince Hal, while River and Rodney Harvey (front-left) share a joint. 91-year-old Sally Curtice (seated left, in green jacket) presides.
I WAS FIFTEEN when I saw Idaho for the first time on cable.
I had furtively rented the Merchant Ivory movie Maurice (1987) not long before and had been keenly disappointed by the gay love scenes in it. Hugh Grant and James Wilby embrace and kiss each other in that movie as if they are afraid of catching some disease, and part of that is due to the film’s story of gay repression but a lot of it has to do with the actors’ obvious discomfort, too. In Idaho, there’s a moment when the criminal Bob (William Richert), who acts as a Falstaff figure to the street boys in the film, kisses the Prince Hal-like rich boy Scott (Keanu Reeves) on the mouth, and to his credit, Van Sant doesn’t darken the frame when this kiss happens, as so many directors do for a gay kiss even today. But again, in this kiss there’s a sense of two actors doing what they’re supposed to do as if they want to get it over with. There is none of the need that we have to feel in the older Bob, none of the narcissistic pleasure we have to feel in Scott.
Bringing the Falstaff story into a tale of male street hustlers was entirely Van Sant’s idea, and it plays poorly on screen. The editing choices feel so arbitrary in all the Bob scenes that they seem to have been made in a panic; there are lots of too-fast cutaways to rent boys listening and non-reacting to Bob (most of them super-pretty, of course). Richert and Reeves have no chemistry, and Reeves is awkward with Van Sant’s heightened language in these scenes, in that ineffably inept Keanu way of his. The Bob scenes look like klunky “let’s get this on its feet” first run-through rehearsals, and it’s clearer than ever to me that all the Bob sections should have been cut. Unfortunately, the Bob sections are a fairly large part of My Own Private Idaho, and they’re difficult to ignore, even after Van Sant introduces Grace Zabriskie and Udo Kier as two more dream-freak johns for the boys; these performers intermittently make the film bump up against a full-out, surreal David Lynch ethos.
Gus’s harem of hustlers (clockwise from top-left): Scott Patrick Green; Flea, with uncredited blonde daydream; Michael Parker, the eponymous inspiration for River‘s character; and Rodney Harvey.
After his first, self-financed feature, the lyric Mala Noche (1986), Van Sant had made a success with Drugstore Cowboy (1989), an extremely romantic drug movie that set him up as a director that young actors wanted to work with, a director who could both give them indie street cred and make them look swooningly attractive.
Phoenix and Reeves had both acted in the comedy I Love You To Death (1990), and when they read Van Sant’s script for Idaho they tentatively decided to do it together, no small decision in 1991, when playing a gay role was thought to be career suicide for a young actor. Van Sant originally planned to do Idaho with real street kids, but he went with the name actors when they expressed interest (he includes two of his street kid friends here in a semi-documentary, confessional segment set in a diner to Madonna’s “Cherish,” and this is enough to suggest a very different, more honest movie about male prostitution). The circumstances of the film’s shooting have to be remembered because these circumstances are the only way we can explain certain gaps in Idaho’s logic, certain moments when a curtain is drawn and the narrative stops making sense.
Leather-clad Keanu on his own private motorcycle (a Norton Commando from his own collection).
RIVER AND KEANU make an iconic pair as they ride around on a motorcycle together, but they are often uneasy with each other, especially in a scene where Scott and Mike pretend to screw under blankets on a flophouse bed as a way of distracting some visiting cops. In this scene as staged, it’s clear that Scott is supposed to be trying to make the cops uncomfortable, but it’s totally unclear on an acting level just what Phoenix and Reeves are doing aside from looking very uncomfortable themselves and very self-consciously heterosexual (call it the Maurice effect). Van Sant has said that Reeves made the choice to have Scott wear a leather slave bracelet, and Scott also wears a sort of slave collar when his wealthy father confronts him, but Reeves is unable to flesh out the dynamics of this choice in relation to his street father and lover Bob.
Reeve’s inadequacies are somewhat easy to forgive, though, when he walks across the screen wearing grey jeans with a piece of patterned fabric stretched tight across the bottom of his butt and an orange shirt with vertical black stripes under a bulky, ‘90s-boy-crush jacket, while Phoenix is as lush a morsel as any john might hope for in his white jeans, black boots and orange jacket. In so many ways, this is a film that relies on the costume designs of Beatrix Aruna Pasztor and the orange-and-yellow production design of David Brisbin. The film’s clothes and settings are so evocative of the road and Portland and 1991 that they often visually override the problems with the script and some of the too-quick editing cutaways.
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO is a flawed movie, to put it mildly, but the flaws fall away in the famous campfire scene where Mike confesses his love to Scott. Van Sant had written this scene as just a passing fancy where Mike hits on Scott because he’s bored and horny. In his script, Van Sant indicated some sexual contact between them, but he left it up to the actors to take it as far as they wanted. As Van Sant originally conceived them, Scott and Mike weren’t gay or straight but viewed sex only as a job. Phoenix had befriended the gay cameraman Bobby Bukowski on the movie Dogfight (1991), and Bukowski supposedly influenced Phoenix to make Mike specifically gay. Phoenix wrote most of the campfire scene himself.
“If I had a normal family and a good upbringing then I would have been a well-adjusted person,” Mike says to Scott, in his soft, measured, uncertain voice, as they recline by the fire together (he spends the whole film looking for his lost mother, while Scott spends most of the movie putting off his powerful mayor father). Scott laughs at Mike a little as he continues to talk about wanting a normal life, a normal Mom, a dog. “So you didn’t have a normal dog?” Scott asks. Reeves is totally in tune with the film’s dry humor here, but the pre-occupied Mike doesn’t get Scott’s joke. “No, I didn’t have a dog,” he says, either unwilling or unable to joke around with Scott. “What’s a normal Dad?” Scott suddenly asks, dropping his cooler-than-thou act and posing a question that he really wants an answer to.
The two boys are perilously close now emotionally—they’ve made contact. “I’d like to talk with you,” Mike says. “I don’t feel like I can be close to you,” he near-whispers. Scott asks, “How close?” in an uneasy way, so that Reeves’s own uneasiness as an actor feeds into Scott’s uneasiness with the situation. At this point, Phoenix and Reeves reach a level of acting where they aren’t even really their “characters” anymore (“Scott” as written is a sketchy construct at best), but they’ve moved past themselves, too. And you can see Reeves cursing the fact that Phoenix has written himself such a showstopper of a scene, but he’s canny enough to use his own misgivings so that they inform all of his own reactions.
“What do I mean to you?” Mike asks, and this question makes Scott shoot back, “What do I mean to you?” in an angry voice. Reeves might not know why Scott is angry, but he’s working instinctively, and he catches a pinpoint accurate insulted reaction endemic to this type of cards-on-the-table situation. “Mike, you’re my best friend,” Scott says, as if he’d like to delay what he knows is coming. “I only have sex with a guy for money, and two guys can’t love each other,” he insists, sounding quite sure of himself. “I mean, for me,” Mike says, as he crouches near the warmth of the fire, “I could love someone even if I…you know, wasn’t paid for it.” Phoenix makes this line sound like a discovery, and at this point the two actors have reached a level of revelation so emotionally naked that it might have made the hairs on Ingmar Bergman’s neck stand up.
“I love you and…you don’t pay me,” Mike says. The dangerous line is coming, and Scott tries to stop it by saying, “Mike—” but there’s no stopping it now. “I really want to kiss you, man,” Mike says. The camera is on Phoenix when he says this, but we can see Reeves in profile wincing slightly with his mouth, as if to say, “Yikes, dude, bummer.” Then we see Reeves’s face, and he’s looking at Phoenix with very cold eyes, as if Scott is trying to fight the sympathy that’s welling up, or as if Reeves feels ambushed by this scene and knows that he can’t back out of it at this point. He also must know now for certain that Phoenix is going to get all the accolades for this movie with this confession of love.
“Good night now,” Mike says. He puts his head down and then raises it to say, “I love you, though,” in a voice so self-consciously pitiful that it might be funny if Phoenix didn’t take it so seriously. “You know that, I do love you,” Mike almost whines. He won’t let this go. He won’t let Scott joke it away. Mike is totally exposed and vulnerable now, and he wants it that way, and he wants Scott to react to that. Scott squirms uncomfortably for a moment and then says, “Alright.” He pats the ground beside him and says, “C’mere, Mike.” Scott opens his arms up and says, “Just…c’mon!” At this moment of grace, this offer of physical affection, Scott is being almost purely sporting with his friend. The sweetness of this reaction makes him incredibly attractive, finally, and Reeves must sense that (what a minefield this scene is for him as an actor and as a character!). Mike clambers over and Scott puts his arms around him in the dark as we hear the fire crackle. We see Scott gently rest a hand on Mike’s head, on all that messy, beautiful River Phoenix hair.
THEN THERE’S A CUT. What happens after this cut? Do Scott and Mike make love? Do they just hug? Van Sant left it up to Reeves and Phoenix whether or not they wanted to kiss and he even set up the camera for a kiss. On the Criterion DVD, in a deleted scene, we can see that the two young actors just decided to howl at the moon instead of kiss. There would be no kissing, or sex. Part of that had to be career anxiety, not to mention personal anxiety, but part of it is also what Phoenix found in writing and playing the confession of love the way he did. It might have been amazing to see a noblesse oblige-like Scott give a tearfully grateful Mike a purely loving orgasm by that campfire, but this is 1991, and to even allude to what might have happened after the campfire scene cuts is apparently too much to ask of this picture.
Yet it might have been done. Look at the bold, kicking-over-the-traces way Udo Kier plays the German john named Hans in this film. Udo Kier isn’t afraid in 1991 to play a gay guy, but he’s a character actor and he’s from Europe. American teen idols Reeves and Phoenix aren’t ready for where the campfire scene should go, and so the movie just has to drop it. Van Sant let Phoenix take the lead here, and the scene he wrote is so brutally strong yet incomplete that it completely unbalances the film.
As the campfire scene plays now, Scott and Mike and Reeves and Phoenix are too scared to be sexual, and so Phoenix decided to take this fear far beyond sex into emotions so deeply seated and painful that they could never cause an erection. As a gay fifteen year-old, this campfire confession was the most maddening and the most hopeful movie scene that I had ever experienced. The campfire scene in My Own Private Idaho was the only example I had growing up in how you might deal with secret feelings of love for another guy, and the dynamic it suggested couldn’t have been more damaging to me personally. Inevitably, at 18, I played out my own campfire scene. For me, it involved hands squeezing my neck for support, tears and wine all over a staircase landing, and finally, blessedly, a few gentle kisses on my ankles from a heterosexual boy who loved me enough to give me that, just as Scott loved Mike enough to cradle him and put a hand on his head.
This was a hinge in my life, and my two best college friends and myself all paid a steep price for it. I can’t disentangle what I felt watching the campfire scene at 15, living it at 18, and then watching it again, “grown-up” and above it all, apparently, and trying to figure out this scene and how it influenced what happened to me. Contemplating it as deeply as River Phoenix contemplated the depth of Mike’s feelings for Scott makes me want to shuck off the formal distance of film analysis and try to describe the recumbent calm that comes over me when considering this central catastrophe of my life, the catastrophe of being loved but not in the right way, the catastrophe of feeling too much and throwing your hat into the ring and having to take the consequences, the catastrophe of having needs that can’t possibly be filled by another human being.
Part of me hates My Own Private Idaho and how the true things in it come out of the compromises in it that needed to be made. Part of me wishes I’d not seen My Own Private Idaho when I was 15, yet the film is so much a part of who I am that it feels unavoidable, not just in its confession of love that leads to total ruin but in sexual templates with older men that were laid down for me like the law. Mike embraces his last older john with a mixture of confused, slightly disgusted tenderness and I know now that such encounters were in front of me at 15 and are now mainly behind me (there’s only so long you can turn certain tricks, to paraphrase Blanche DuBois). As I move within hailing distance of becoming Daddy Carroll, it feels more important to me to figure out what it was like to be Mike, and whether love should ever be confessed as he confesses it.
IDAHO IS A BENCHMARK in the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s, and it seems now to represent both the piquant newness and bravery of that movement and the limitations that kept it as a specialty for academics and a mixed blessing for gay and straight audiences. Almost fifteen years after Van Sant’s film was released, well-known Hollywood players Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were actually seen having sex in a camp tent in Brokeback Mountain (2005). That gay sex in a mainstream film needed to be done, or gotten over with, but the real danger in that movie for the actors was not the simulation of a sexual act but a scene soon afterward where Ledger comes back into the tent and allows himself to be cradled by Gyllenhaal. That kind of “save me” vulnerability was pioneered by James Dean and by Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, but it’s worth noticing that such displays of on-screen vulnerability can get to be a very unattractive, addictive and even annihilating habit in life. It can’t be too coincidental that Phoenix and Ledger both met with similar drug-related ends after portraying the awards-baiting despair of two on-screen gay men who are sacrificed on the altar of both measured public compassion and deep-dyed public distaste.
Scott takes up with an Italian girl in the last third of Idaho, and the abandoned Mike is last seen in a narcoleptic blackout on a long stretch of highway. After two truckers steal his shoes, the camera lifts upward and we see a cab pull up to Mike’s prostrate body. A youngish man gets out to put Mike in the cab, which then drives off. I’d always hoped as a teenager that this man was Scott, but on the Criterion DVD, it’s revealed that the man was supposed to be Mike’s brother (James Russo), who might also be his father. Van Sant, however, decided to leave the man’s identity ambiguous. In a conversation with Todd Haynes on the DVD, Van Sant even wonders if this mystery man might be a farmer who could take Mike in and let him rest. Maybe, he says, Mike will even find a boy to love on this farm. To which I say, Mary, please.
Van Sant’s pipe dream for Mike sounds about as likely as the story Tennessee Williams told Claire Bloom when she asked him what happens to Blanche after she’s led away to the nuthouse at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams told Bloom that Blanche would charm the asylum doctors and eventually be released to open a charming boutique in the French Quarter with her sister Stella. That might have been the sentimentality of too much liquor talking, but so many gay men are romantic dreamers, so eager to please, so tempted by self-pity, so ready to be cradled after a confession of love, so hungry for unlikely happy endings. I’m sorry, Gus, but Mike looks to me like he’s on the last rung down to the graveyard, where he will join the actor who played him so passionately along with all the other unrealistic hopes that outsiders try to shelter in their work because they’ve been blown to bits in real life. And if you say, “To hell with real life,” I’m afraid that real life will eventually say, “To hell with you,” in this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching.
Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.
My Own Private Idaho is playing at the Museum of the Moving Image September 16th and 18th, as part of their retrospective of director Gus Van Sant (through September 30th).