When River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in the early hours of October 31, 1993, he was only 23 years old. He had been an actor for more than ten years, and had already given a number of sensitive, wise, and dynamic performances, including those in Stand By Me (1986), the little-seen Dogfight (1991), and his Oscar-nominated role in Running on Empty (1988). He was respected by colleagues, loved by audiences, and admired by critics. There was the promise of even greater things to come.
Phoenix’s performance in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) marks a definite turning point. As the narcoleptic male hustler, Mike Waters, Phoenix declared loudly that he wanted to be seen as more than just a pretty face. Only 20 years old when he made Van Sant’s film alongside his close friend, Keanu Reeves (the two had co-starred in the black comedy, I Love You To Death, the previous year), Phoenix was moving toward independent films that could push him in new directions. Mike allowed him to be sexual, emotional, and messy; to present a much more complex character than those available in mainstream films.
The nature of Phoenix’s death has overwhelmed the conversation about him as an actor. Amidst the sensationalism, it’s easy to forget just how good he was. On the 10th anniversary of his death, Ryan Gilbey wrote in The Guardian that Phoenix “is the forgotten man of late-20th-century film acting.” Gilbey poses a question: “Do the young fans of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal even know that there was an actor in the recent past who would make their idols look like bantamweights?” Nowhere is this more profoundly on display than in his performance in My Own Private Idaho, for which he won awards at the Venice International Film Festival, the Independent Spirit Awards, and from the National Society of Film Critics.
My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant’s third feature film, is a landmark of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s - a movement which gave voice and expression to LGBTQ stories, while also exhibiting distinctly fluid and subversive styles of filmmaking that rejected conventional narrative forms. Accordingly, My Own Private Idaho’s story about a group of young male hustlers in Portland has an episodic structure, and is visually and tonally experimental. A dense dreaminess implants Mike’s narcolepsy within the film’s fabric. This magnifies the sense that Mike is adrift without an anchor; that he experiences the world through an altered reality, where time is fragmented.
My Own Private Idaho often feels like two films spliced together. Indeed, Van Sant’s main sources for the film were two separate screenplays and a short story, all written by him. During the making of his first feature, Mala Noche (1985), Van Sant met a street kid who became the inspiration for Mike. There is also the influence of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V, or more precisely, of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965). Welles’ film is focused on the Falstaff character from those plays, reimagined in My Own Private Idaho as Bob (William Richert) – a mentor to the hustlers, and the man from whom rich kid Scott (Reeves), like Prince Hal, must break away to accept his destiny.
What carries us through the film, with its elliptical and enigmatic qualities, is Phoenix’s performance. While the lives of male hustlers is likely distant from most of our own experiences, the film’s emotional arc is not. Mike’s story is one we can all relate to – a story of love, for family, for another man, and the loss of both.
My Own Private Idaho is a sort-of road movie, although there is little actual movement. The film begins and ends on the same stretch of deserted highway somewhere in Idaho – it’s where Mike has come from, and he’s returning in search of something lost. Mike has no one to interact with so he interacts with the landscape. Alone in that lonely space, we watch Phoenix behave rather than 'act' per se – he touches his face, moves around, and blinks as if seeing light for the first time. Van Sant frames him in near-disorientating close-ups that draw us in and ask us to engage with his vulnerability. We wonder why he’s on the road and how he even got there.
My Own Private Idaho makes use of Phoenix’s face; its sharp angles and soft contours, and the melancholy quality in his eyes. In his interactions with Reeves’ Scott, his unstudied awkwardness and introspection render his emotional state with complete authenticity. Scott, the privileged son of Portland’s mayor, is slumming it for fun – he’s having sex with men for money; partly as an act of rebellion, partly to satisfy his ego. Around a campfire, Scott tells Mike that two men can’t love each other. But for Mike, it’s different. “I could love someone even if, you know, I wasn’t paid for it,” he quietly confesses. “I love you, and you don’t pay me.” It’s a pivotal scene. The camera stays close to Phoenix throughout so we feel his yearning, making us intruders in a very private moment. With eyes cast down and shoulders curved in, Phoenix assumes a pose reminiscent of James Dean throughout much of East of Eden (1955). He vanishes so deep into Mike’s skin you forget he is acting.
Phoenix’s best performances stand out because of this intimacy. His work in My Own Private Idaho is all heart – open and unselfconscious, bruised yet tough. He brings us painfully close to Mike so we care what happens, where he goes, what will come next. Van Sant’s film is a testament to the actor’s beauty, vulnerability, and his abundant talent.
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Watch My Own Private Idaho below at SBS On Demand: