Tuesday, March 21st, 2023

Retrospect and resonance in My Own Private Idaho

MyOwnPrivateIdahoPoster My Own Private Idaho

Written and directed by Gus Van Sant

Released September 21, 1991
104 min. • Find on imdb

Review by Stephen O. Murray

August 28, 1995.

River Phoenix’s passings-out in My Own Private Idaho have a resonance now they didn’t have when the film was released in 1991. His performance as the yearning tag-along seems less like acting than it did before his death.

Keanu Reeves’s subsequent success has made his Prince Hal even more convincing. River fell (as in the film); Keanu has taken the world in stride.

PhoenixReevesLike Hal, Scott Favor (Reeves) takes his “rightful” place (he is the son of the mayor of Portland, Oregon) after playing at debauchery, seeing what it’s about. He gives more (protection and compassion and what I see as the scarcest resource, time) than most would expect to the needy, narcoleptic not-very-successful hustler who worships him. He doesn’t like that he can’t give more, can’t immolate himself.

Scott has to break his Falstaff’s heart (the Falstaff character here is named Bob Pigeon, played by William Richert) and dash his fantasies of special favor, but he does not seem to have been as intimate with his mentor in vice as he was with his age mate, Mike Waters (Phoenix). Much of the debauchery, including the intermittent (casual?) prostitution of Scott and Mike, occurs in Seattle.

RiverPhoenixIdahoIn itself, the film tries a lot and mostly succeeds. The big-sky road motif is over used, but something of the unromantic life of hustlers does come across. Also, something of the absurdity of desire (which pays to keep them alive).

Phoenix won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 1991 Venice Film Festival, the Independent Spirit Award, and the National Society of Film Critics Award as best actor. He ODed in 1993 in front of the Viper Room, then owned by Johnny Depp.


28 August 1995
©1995, 2015, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.