One of the most unabashedly queer films of the time, My Own Private Idaho is an iconic movie by director Gus Van Sant; starring the late River Phoenix, and Keanu Reeves as two young male hustlers. Set in (surprise, surprise) Idaho, Portland, and Rome, it is almost a love story, a story of love both requited and unrequited. Mike Waters, played by Phoenix, is a young narcoleptic prostitute, who goes through life in a perpetual state of dreamy detachment, while his best friend Scotty Favor (Reeves) is awake, and as in-the-moment a boy as one might wish.
Mike and Scotty are from two wildly different backgrounds, Mike was born in poverty, while Scotty has the cushion of his rich father to fall back upon, in case life doesn’t treat him as he wishes it to. And all Mike wants is to find his mother, who left their family when he was young. Mike also seems to be the by-product of incest, with a condition that sends him to sleep under even the most minor pressures. Vaguely reminiscent of a drug induced stupor, this ability to fall asleep anywhere is accompanied by violent shaking of the extremities, and with flashbacks to what seem to be home movies of a time when he was a baby, in the arms of his beautiful, dancing mother (who stirred the dinner with a gun).
The movie opens to a shot of a road under an endless blue sky, with mountains in the distance and green and yellow fields on either side. It shows a boy with a large satchel, standing on the side of the road, evidently waiting for something. He talks to himself, and to us, in forlorn, introspective tones, and compares his view of the scenery to a man’s face. They meet, and cater to a variety of clientele, including an eccentric man who likes his house to be very, very clean, and makes Mike play out a fantasy of “a little Dutch boy”, and gets off to the sound of the scrubbing of a stove. Another man, a German entertainer, pays Scotty and Mike to sit on the couch and be his audience. The life of boys paid to service men, boys who don’t have a choice, and boys who do, living on the streets, is very beautifully depicted without evoking overt judgement or sympathy from the audience.
The crew stayed at Mr. Van Sant’s house in Portland, where he had initially invited Phoenix, and where Reeves and the others soon joined, to make it a den of non-stop partying, with jam sessions in between, where Flea, of Red Hot Chili Peppers played bass along with Reeves, and Phoenix played a guitar he had picked up at a local music shop. Eventually, the director had to move into an apartment downtown, to get some sleep.
The script was one that encouraged the actors to add to it, and River Phoenix rose magnificently to the task. The part where the two boys sit around the campfire in the desert, that scene was almost entirely written by him, with inputs from Reeves. Mike, his character, was originally meant to be somewhat asexual, viewing the act in a desultory manner. Phoenix rewrote it to include the love that he felt for his best friend, making it one of the highlights of the film with its real, raw pathos.
My Own Private Idaho is considered a landmark film in the New Queer Cinema movement, an early 1990s movement in queer-themed independent film-making. Since its release in 1991, the film has grown in popularity emerged as a cult classic, especially among LGBTQ+ audiences. The film is notable for its then-taboo subject matter and avant-garde style.