My Own Private Idaho: Van Sant's Best Film? (Part One)

Part One

The new black cinema, reflected in the work of Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing” in 1989) and John Singleton (“Boyz N’ the Hood” in 1991), was energized by the broader socio-political contexts of the late 1980s and early 1990s in which it emerged. Similarly, no social factor has affected gay and queer cinema of the 1990s as much as AIDS. For years, there were fears and avoidance of dealing with AIDS, then controversy erupted over the kind of “morally responsible, yet realistic” entertainment to be made about AIDS. This dilemma became very clear in the reception of Todd Haynes’ award-winning “Poison,” which came out in 1991, the same year that “My Own Private Idaho” was released.

The exploration in “Drugstore Cowboy” of young hustlers living in society’s outer fringes, as well as that film’s Portland settings, are also manifest in the critically acclaimed “My Own Private Idaho,” arguably the director’s strongest, most ambitious feature. Once again, Van Sant chose a subjective perspective, telling the narrative from the P.O.V. of the protagonist, Mike Waters, an apocaleptic street hustler. Earlier versions were titled “In a Blue Funk” and “Minions of the Moon.” The film’s ultimate moniker derives from a song lyric by the rock group B-52, and also from Van Sant trips to Idaho, which he regarded as more than just a geographic place–a state of mind, a refuge one takes for comfort.

After the critical and commercial success of “Drugstore Cowboy,” the studios courted Van Sant with lucrative offers, but he resisted the mainstream. His interest in a project titled “My Own Private Idaho” was deemed “too risky” by the studios. After all, one of the very first scenes depicts the hero, Mike Waters, having oral sex for pay with an older man in a seedy motel. However, with the support of the young and bright executive Cam Galano of New Line Cinema, Sant got the green light for a $2.6 million movie, to be released by Fine Line Features, the art division of New Line, soon to be headed by the entrepreneurial Ira Deutschmann.

“My Own Private Idaho” is a personal film, reflecting some of Van Sant’s own encounters and experiences. Michael Parker, a homeless street hustler who smokes pot, served as inspiration for the character of Mike Waters. Scott Favor, the tale’s other lead, is a rich boy who goes slumming in the underbelly of Portland and Seattle. As the product of upper-class family, Van Sant could relate more easily to Scott: “Scott is, or could be, me, coming from the blue-blood and royalty of Portland.” The project became even more personal, when Van Sant cast himself as the ponytailed bellboy in the Idaho hotel.

While the film was in the planning phases, Michael Parker was supposed to play Mike Waters, and Rodney Harvey was going to be Scott Favor. Both were close to Van Sant: Parker played the harassed youth in “Drugstore Cowboy,” and Harvey, an Andy Warhol alumnus, was pulled out of that picture due to drug problems. But the critical acclaim of “Drugstore Cowboy,” which put Van Sant on the map, allowed him to send the script to bigger agencies. After struggling with some talent managers due to the script’s riske contents, Van Sant was able to get an ideal ensemble, headed by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in the lead roles of Mike Waters and Scott Favor, the tale’s appealing street hustlers. In a bizarre turn of events that seldom happens, the fictional Mike and Scott and the real-life hustlers upon which their characters are based appear in the movie in smaller roles.

Other than the leads, the film is cast with eccentric actors, many of whom veterans of Van Sant’s previous efforts. The raucous, chicken hawk Bob Pigeon, an unappealing part, is played by filmmaker William Rickert (“Winter Kill,” among others). Robert Lee “Bob” Pitchlynn (a veteran of bits in previous Van Sant films), the inspiration for the Bob Pigeon character, was cast as Walt, the first john who performs fellatio on Mike. Grace Zabriskie, who had played Mat Dillon’s confused mother in “Drugstore Cowboy,” plays a wealthy matron who pays for the company of younger men. The European gentleman Hans, a traveling car parts salesman who likes male hustlers, was played by the German actor and cult figure Udo Kier, who had earlier scored in Andy Warhol’s productions, “Blood for Dracula” and “Flesh for Frankenstein.”

“My Own Private Idaho” won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. The film also gained River Phoenix the Best Actor honor at the Venice Film Festival. Quite established for his age, Phoenix had already impressed in “Stand by Me” (1986) and had also received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for “Running on Empty” (1988), Sidney Lumet’s political melodrama. Van Sant’s feature also helped Keanu Reeves, then best-known for his “Bill and Ted” movies, to get better screen roles.

Thematically, the film explores the notions of being an outsider (even if one belongs to the upper class or power elite), family abandonment, unrequited love, self-estrangement, and alienation, and the meaning of friendship and family bonds, all concepts that Van Sant has and would continue to examine in future films.

As usual with Van Sant, the screenplay was a reflection of all the literary sources that he had absorbed up to that point. He had publicly acknowledged, in addition to Shakespeare, the influence of the playwright Sam Shepard, specifically in the intense scene in which Mike and Scott visit Mike’s brother, Richard (played by James Russo). Significant revelations are made in those scenes about their troubled family past, how their unstable mother fell for a gambler-cowboy who did not love her; how Richard spent time in mental institution; and how their mom shot her beau in a movie house while they were watching “Rio Bravo,” Howard Hawks’ 1959 cult Western, starring John Wayne. Says Richard: “The popcorn spread all over the floor soaked with blood,” which is seen in a powerful flashback.

Van Sant has always admired John Rechy’s 1963 chronicle “City of Night,” which he read and reread in the 1970s, while observing hustlers. The book helped him to understand the denizens of Hollywood Boulevard, as they walk the streets aimlessly, go on the prowl, relax in coffee shops and video arcades, pass time between tricks and drug boosts, crash out at a friend’s apartment or in cheap hotel room rented by their customers.

There were also negative points of reference, to use a sociological jargon. While impressed with the visual texture of Martin Bell’s acclaimed documentary, ”Streetwise,” which deals with homeless teenagers in Seattle, it was hard for Van Sant not to notice the conspicuous omission of male prostitutes from the narrative. The stark documentary “Streetwise” was nominated for the 1984 Oscar, but, ironically, the winner that year was “The Times of Harvey Milk,” about the gay politician, a figure that intrigued Van Sant and would be the subject of his 2008 film, “Milk.”

As a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” now set among street hustlers, “My Own Private Idaho” was by turns nonchalant and touching, structurally loose but coherent, graced with unexpected lyrical images and narrative hairpins. Shakespeare is used in the film to convey the transcendence of time, wishing to convey that Mike and Scott are figures than can exist anywhere and anytime.

In this post-modern, skid-row tale, Van Sant reworks ideas from Shakespeare in a light and playful mode. Van Sant must have also been inspired by Orson Welles’ 1966 film, “Chimes at Midnight,” which is based on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” with the then portly and grandly operatic Welles as Falstaff. But on a closer look, “My Own Private Idaho” reads more like an expanded version of Van Sant’s earlier films, elevating their issues to a more poetic, lyrical, and symbolic level. Having teenage hustlers lapse into Shakespearean verse, in a deliberately modern and stilted way, didn’t always work for some critics, but it suited the story and added an original touch. Spectators used to more conventional cinema found the film’s veering off the narrative track disturbing and problematic. For them, the tale was like a pileup of open parentheses within parentheses, which never got satisfactorily or fully closed (by design, as far as Van Sant is concerned).

Mike Waters is a narcoleptic hustler, haunted by his mother’s abandonment when he was a boy. One of the narrative strands is Mike’s desperate, obsessive search for his mother, reversing the conventions of most Hollywood movies, in which it is usually the parents who search for their missing children or relatives, from John Ford’s seminal “The Searchers” all the way to Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore,” and John Boorman’s “The Emerald Forest.” Throughout, Van Sant inserts images of the mother caressing Mike as an adolescent (but emotionally still a child), while telling him, “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.” Later on, brief vignettes of the mother and Mike as a baby are also shown, evoking the image of La Pieta.

The ailment of narcolepsy is a metaphor for the effects Mike’s emotional life has on his physical life, and vice versa, the impact of his illness on his sense of helplessness on the streets. But narcolepsy also fulfills a narrative function, as a time-traveling device and a way to segue from one locale to to another. Structurally, the film is divided into chapters, each set in a different place, indicated by a title card. The narrative proper begins in Seattle, moves to Portland, Idaho, Rome and its provinces, before ending back in Portland. Mike falls asleep in one site, and then is carried away while sleeping, or reawakes, in another place.

Mike falls in love with Scott, a fellow hustler who stands to inherit a fortune from his father, Portland’s paraplegic mayor; in Shakespeare’s plays, he was the king’ son. Until then, Scott looks upon Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a cocaine-dealing braggart, and the film’s equivalent of Falstaff, as his “true father.” Like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal figure, Scott intends to renounce his street life and repudiate his friends when his father dies, which he does, in a heartbreaking scene set at the cemetery.