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‘My Own Private Idaho’ Is a Queer Masterpiece

On its 25th anniversary, looking back at the Gus Van Sant classic

Fine Line Features
Fine Line Features

“Getting away from everything feels good,” one of them says, his face flush with glowing embers. “Yeah it does,” says the other. A cowboy duo — sort of. Two figures poking at a fire on the side of the open desert road, one named Mike Waters and the other Scott Favor. One of them poor and the other rich, one intrigued by the idea of a normal life, the other eyeing normalcy in his rear-view mirror. “I’d like to talk with you,” the sensitive Mike half-whispers. “I’d like to really talk with you.”

This is one of the most famous moments in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, in part because of how natural and vulnerable it feels. It wasn’t originally in the cards for Mike to be in love with Scott — or for this scene to become a gentle, yearning act of confession, or for the movie to become an unrequited romance. “The character of Mike was originally kind of asexual,” Van Sant has said. “Sex was something that he traded in, so he had no real sexual identity.” But Mike was played by River Phoenix, an actor who, in retrospect, seems beholden to the pain he brought to every role. “River makes it more like he’s attracted to his friend, that he’s really in love with him. He made the whole character that way.”

And the whole movie. Even without this tinge of unfulfilled romance, My Own Private Idaho is already, on paper, too many films at once. It’s a tale of teenage hustlers, boys who get paid to sleep with men, mostly because they have to, sometimes simply because they can; a road movie that hops from Portland, Oregon, to Idaho and all the way to Rome; a documentary with interviews of Portland’s real-life street hustlers speckled throughout; and a riff on Shakespeare’s Henry IV. In the hands of its stars, Phoenix and Keanu Reeves (Scott), it became all of these things. But it also became an essential meditation on desire between men, made at a time when Hollywood and its neighboring industries didn’t quite know what to do with that desire.

My Own Private Idaho is a wistful, delicate hybrid, a movie that does more than it could possibly seem to be doing at once. On the 25th anniversary of its release, it reminds us of the risks Hollywood’s periphery used to take, and of the stakes that even a not explicitly political movie often had ascribed to it. Van Sant grew up in a wild era for cinema, amid an explosion of radical underground movies by the likes of Andy Warhol, but also on the cusp of New Hollywood. His own art is a symptom of both trends, which might explain why a movie like My Own Private Idaho now registers as a strange artifact, off-kilter and unusual but not quite avant-garde. Van Sant’s approach comes off as natural and lived in, warm rather than academic.

My Own Private Idaho makes me nostalgic for a time when queer cinema’s mere existence was truly radical, before we could pat ourselves on the back for consuming or making it, before queerness had become mainstream enough to attract the cultural capital that comes dog-eared with mandatory concessions to straight audiences. It’s a weird movie that way. It’s on the margins. But it stars Keanu Reeves! Picture, if you can, the likes of Reeves and Phoenix, both stars on the rise — Reeves was fresh off of filming Point Break — signing on to a movie about teenage male hustlers. Picture that movie in Portland, Oregon, hometown of writer-director Van Sant, filmed among the real-life men and boys on the streets and sharing in their stories, but with empathy, not condescension. And picture these actors doing it without teasing their gay fan bases with nods and winks, and without any sense of an itch for progressive street cred.

The subject is plausible today; the lack of self-awareness isn’t. It’s hard to imagine even for Van Sant, whose long and varied, if not always successful, career has straddled miniature masterpieces like Idaho, Oscar darlings (Milk, Good Will Hunting), too many forgettable Matt Damon movies and, lately, unspeakably bad efforts like this year’s The Sea of Trees. It’s even harder to imagine for the actors involved. In an interview with Interview magazine in 1991, Keanu Reeves was asked: “Was there any concern in your camp, say from your agent or manager, that playing a male prostitute would hurt your ‘image?’” “Hurt my image?” replied Reeves. “Who am I — a politician?” In 2016, a straight actor plays a gay character and gets points for bravery: accolades for doing it right, butt taps from his colleagues for respecting the character’s “humanity,” and a chance to confirm, by brunt of irony, that he really isn’t gay.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s — after Reagan, during the worst of AIDS, when the humanity of LGBT people was still actively being called into question by wide swathes of the country — the bar was a bit higher. There was a radical culture flourishing among filmmakers and other artists who, for too long, had felt under the gun. Playing gay characters hadn’t yet become the polite or professional thing for actors, particularly those pale, slender charmers of the grunge era, to do. For straight people in Hollywood, there was little to nothing to gain from that. Now, we have Jared Leto.

To say that Mike and Scott are merely male hustlers is to undermine the substance of their roles, reducing them to Oscar-sized pegs rather than admiring them for what makes the roles specific and rich. We learn that Mike is the product of incest. He’s a person with narcolepsy whose cataplectic episodes pop up under the most minor pressures. Scott, on the other hand, is a spoiled rich kid, the son of the mayor, hanging around Portland’s derelicts to make a point to his father about his independence. These men are lonely, but not lonelier than the men who hire them. There’s a john in the film whose kink is watching younger men scrub sinks so hard the rhythm becomes music he can sing and dance to. “Faster, little Dutch boy,” he says. “Harder! That sound!” Another john, a world traveler, sings and dances, too — or he used to, and with the paid company of the local rent boys, he relives that past, performing his old act at home for a captive audience.

These sound like caricatures, and in some small way they are. But My Own Private Idaho’s enduring accomplishment is that it can see all of these men with sympathy and good humor. It allows them to be idiosyncratic and strange, and practically Lynchian in their inability to conform to the usual modes of behavior. As such, they’re a spectacle to be acknowledged and loved, without suggesting that they also need to be forgiven. That’s queerness. And My Own Private Idaho is a masterpiece because that queerness is an ethic, not a subject. It’s an ethos, not a convenience. In 2016, when the threats to gay life have become subsumed beneath performances of polite politics and the needs of the middle class, it’s helpful to remember a movie like this, full of people like these, who confront us with who they are without giving us a chance to tell them who to be.