My Own Private Idaho is a 1991 independent film written and directed by Gus Van Sant, loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1.
The film follows two street hustlers, Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves), as they embark on a journey of personal discovery that takes them to Mike's hometown in Idaho and then to Italy in search of Mike's mom. Scott is based on Prince Hal, the son of the king in the Shakespearean history Henry IV, Part 1. He is the son of the wealthy mayor of Portland, Oregon and claims his street behavior, which includes prostitution to male clients, is largely rebellion. Mike, however, is gay, narcoleptic and has no other means of support. The two develop a strong friendship that is tested by Scott's ambivalence to street life and his forthcoming inheritance, as well as Mike's romantic affection for his companion.
Production and release
The screenplay originally consisted of two separate scenarios: the first was called Modern Days and it recounted Mike's story; a second one updated the Henry IV plays with Scott's story. Van Sant realized that he could blend the two stories together in the manner of the "cut up" technique used by writer William S. Burroughs. In essence, this method involves various story fragments and ideas mixed and matched together to form a unique story. The idea to combine the two scenarios formed in Van Sant's head after watching Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight.
Initially, no studio would touch the script because of its potentially controversial and off-beat subject matter. After Drugstore Cowboy received such favorable critical raves and awards, studios started to show some interest. However, they all wanted their own versions made and not Van Sant's. This frustration prompted the filmmaker to attempt the feature on a shoestring budget with a cast of actual street kids filling out the roles. Fortunately, New Line Cinema were in the process of branching out into producing arthouse films and decided to back Van Sant's vision with a $2.5 million budget.
Once the financial backing was secured, Van Sant faced the problem of casting the two central roles. He decided to send the script to the agents of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, figuring that their agents would reject the script. However, Reeves' agent was amenable to the project, but Phoenix's agent wouldn't even show the screenplay to the young actor. Once Van Sant got by their agents and talked to the two actors he realized that they were up to the challenge. Reeves and Phoenix had their doubts about such a risky venture but decided to take the plunge and made a pact to do the film.
My Own Private Idaho, like many arthouse movies, did not enjoy a wide release but did garner its share of critical acclaim, particularly for the photography and the performances by the actors. Critics of the film described the story as weak and meandering, and the ending as unnecessarily ambiguous. Van Sant was also criticized for his mixing of Shakespearean dialogue with more modern vernacular, in lines such as "this bike was caught with much ease." Nevertheless, the film became an instant classic of gay cinema. The performance by Phoenix, which was considered one of the finest of his career, permanently cemented his position as a gay icon.
Another memorable performance in the film is that of William Richert as the "street tutor" named Bob, a character based on Shakespeare's character Falstaff, and German actor Udo Kier.
In 2005, the film was cleaned and remastered by the Criterion Collection. It was released on a 2-disc DVD set. The second disc features new interviews, outtakes and more information about the movie. This DVD set is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated 64-page-booklet featuring previously published articles and interviews with cast and crew and new essays by JT LeRoy and film critic Amy Taubin, a 1991 article by Lance Loud and reprinted interviews with director Gus Van Sant, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.
My Own Private Idaho has no direct relation to the song "Private Idaho" by the B-52's, but Gus Van Sant does thank the group in the end credits. Indirectly, the title suggests that Mike lives in his own fantasy world / Idaho, i.e. his "own private Idaho" where he lives happily ever after with his mother which would be in line with the meaning of the B-52's song.
The phrase "my own private Idaho" also appears in Pamela Des Barres's 1987 memoir "I'm With the Band" with a similar meaning. While this pre-dates the film, it post-dates the song.
The movie was referenced in the movie "Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie" with the line "Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Airfield."
- My Own Private Idaho at the Internet Movie Database
- Criterion Collection essay by Amy Taubin
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