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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Jun 6, 2021

REVIEW OF classic drama about street hustlers with Keanu Reeves & the late River Phoenix, ‘MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO’


‘MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO’ is a 1991 film that was never shown locally so we're glad we finaly got to see the restored Criterion version with its outstanding cinematography.

It stars a very young Keanu Reeves (way before he became an action star in “Speed” and “The Matrix”) and the late River Phoenix who passed two years after doing this movie due to drug overdose.

River was 21 when he did this film which gave him the best actor award from the Venice Filmfest and the National Society of Film Critics. 

We remember first seeing him as a child actor in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Stand By Me” and he’d later be nominated as Oscar best supporting actor at 18 for “Running on Empty”. He was 23 when he passed due to drug overdose. 

“My Own Private Idaho” has a huge cult following specially amount LGBT members. 

The opening scene shows River standing alone on a deserted highway as Mike, a streetwalker who has narcolepsy, which makes him fall asleep without warning. 

He then falls asleep on the road and dreams of his mother in Idaho, who abandoned him as a child.

The next scene shows him having climax while a client gives him head. After being paid, he returns to a street corner in Portland, Oregon, as a hustler waiting for clients. 

An older woman in a flashy car hires him and they go to her plush home where he meets two other hustlers. One of them is Scott (Keanu), an old friend. 

The film follows the stories of both Mike and Scott, but there’s no doubt that Mike is the lead character, as the story not only starts and ends with him, but he has more important scenes. 

Mike’s story is tied up with his search for his long lost mom while Scott’s story concerns his dad, who is the mayor in their city.

Scott is actually very rich but he prefers to sell his body as an act of rebellion against his dad. He and Mike are friends with Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a sort of adviser to a clan of various street hustlers living in a vacant old building. 

In the scenes with Bob, Scott re-enacts scenes from William Shakespeare’s “Henry” plays, which is about Prince Hal and his conflict with his dad, King Henry.

Mike and Scott then travel by motorbike to Idaho to search for his mom. 

They don’t find her but Mike then gets to meet his older brother, Richard (James Russo), who Mike, later reveals is also his dad since Richard had an incestuous relationship with their own mom. 

It is while they’re in Idaho that Mike admits to Scott that he is really gay and in love with him. But he gets brokenhearted when Scott turns him down, saying he only does gay sex for money. 

Mike’s search for his mom takes him and Scott to Italy. 

They get to the house where her mom used to live but a girl, Carmella (Chiara Caselli), who says she learned English from Mike’s mom, tells them that she had already returned to America. 

Mike returns to America alone, as Scott has fallen in love with Carmella and chooses to stay in Italy. 

Sometime later, while Mike is with Bob in Portland, they see Mike in an expensive suit meeting with some important men in a swanky restaurant.

 Scott’s dad has died and he has inherited their family’s riches. Scott snubs them and that night, Bob dies in his sleep.

The best way to describe the film is that it’s very avant-garde. It’s like Director Van Sant is experimenting and he intentionally wants to confound his viewers.

Van Sant is openly gay and the film has scenes that seem like true monologues of real life male prostitutes narrating their most sad and humiliating encounters with clients. 

Mike himself is shown entertaining unusual clients, like an obsessive-compulsive gay who dresses Mike as a little Dutch Boy who cleans and tidies up his whole apartment. 

There’s also German businessman named Hans (Udo Kier) who performs an energetic song-and-dance number for him and Scott. They’re shown having a threesome, but only in still photos.

Van Sant often resorts to self indulgence. The inclusion of the “Henry” lines will be appreciated only by those who are familiar with Shakespeare’s original play. 

He can also be very playful, specially in that scene in a porn store where magazines with names like “Homo on the Range” or “Male Call” have covers showing naked men talking to each other, including a very young and handsome Keanu Reeves.

It would be difficult to categorize or pigeonhole the film as it is a mix of so many different elements that are sometimes not at all coherent with one another. But no doubt they are all part of Van Sant’s eccentricity as a filmmaker. 

Even the ending will be open to various interpretations. The film is interesting to watch but you get the feeling that it could have been better.

Of all the story strands, it’s that of Mike that touches the heart and River Phoenix gives a very delicate performance that reeks with sadness, loss and poignant melancholy. 

It’s only with him that we make an emotional connection in a dreamlike way that is hard to describe.

 For his scenes, Van Sant even uses as musical background very mournful renditions of classic old songs like “Home on the Range” and “America”. 

River’s portrayal becomes even more haunting when you think of what a waste it is for him to die at 23, at the prime of his life, so promising and full of talent. 

River is much better looking than his brother Joaquin and if he were alive, we think he could have won an Oscar ahead of  "Joker".