My Own Private Idaho at 30: This Is Not/Is Another River Phoenix Essay

This could have been another essay about River Phoenix. In all honesty, this might still turn into another essay about River Phoenix, so magnetic remains his onscreen presence 30 years after his career-turning performance in My Own Private Idaho, 28 years after his death from a drug overdose in 1993, and one year after it was confirmed that his brother Joaquin and fiancée Rooney Mara named their first son in his honor. 

A lesser actor could not have handled the candidness, sensuality, and interiority required in filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s modernized mashup of Shakespeare’s Henry plays with a story about young hustlers scraping together a survival. Phoenix might have had decades full of promise ahead of him, but life rarely goes as planned. And so much has been written about the actor who died too young, and whether they were written before or after that 1993 Halloween night in The Viper Room, they often followed a similar format. 

In September 1991, in a New York Times profile titled “River Phoenix Is Not Just The Boy Next Door,” Karen Schoemer quoted Van Sant: “River is the archetype of the young male lead.” The rest of the piece plays out like this: River is talented, River is sensitive, River’s childhood was “atypical,” River is close to his family, River’s future is bright. In November 1993, in a eulogy-style piece published a week after Phoenix’s death and subtitled “Why Phoenix Wasn’t Like the Other Boys,” Alex Ross wrote in The Washington Post, “he had an instinctive sense for what kinds of characters and actions were missing from modern Hollywood, and how he could take up the slack.” The rest of the piece plays out like this: River was talented, River was sensitive, River’s childhood was “atypical,” River was close to his family, River’s future was bright. A before, and an after. 

Maybe it seems like Schoemer and Ross were saying different things: The former arguing that Phoenix was at the zenith of his profession and establishing what the best could be, while the latter argued that zenith was the outlier among many lessers than. (The fact that Ross takes swipes at other actors in his piece lamenting Phoenix’s death, including calling Phoenix’s My Own Private Idaho costar Keanu Reeves “cretinous,” is a Real Crappy Choice.) But look closer at those headlines, and notice their commonality: Their insistence that River was different. That’s certainly true; few young actors made as instantaneous an impact as he did in Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But is emphasizing someone’s singularity, and linking him so often to boyhood, its own kind of curse? What kind of weight does that put on one’s shoulders? What protection did we fail to offer? If our collective instinct was to call Phoenix a “boy,” are we partially to blame for his few brief years as a man? 

“This road will never end.”

This is an essay about My Own Private Idaho, which is to say … yes, this is still, in part, another essay about River Phoenix. There is no way to discuss this film without discussing the actor, who winds My Own Private Idaho around himself like the wide-open roads that bookend its opening and closing scenes. Phoenix stars as young sex worker Mikey Waters. By day, he pals around with other street kids (young men and a few young women, sometimes homeless, sometimes struggling with addiction, sometimes gay or bisexual or queer). By night, he goes on “dates,” mostly with older clients who demand myriad different things from his body (a man for whom he puts on a schoolboy-style outfit and cleans; a woman with whom he slow dances). And at any time, he could collapse into a narcoleptic seizure and accompanying deep sleep. The stress of his reality, the anxiety of performing sexually, and the memories of his fraught childhood, which play out like gauzy, fragmented Super 8 films, are all causes for his narcoleptic episodes. So Mikey cycles through life on, as he describes it, always the same road—a road that looks like a face. Singular, but familiar; wide-open, but closed off. Maybe he’ll end up somewhere different from Idaho, where he grew up and hopes to locate his missing mother, or Seattle or Portland, where he sells access to his body for enough money to eat. But life is more about repetition than not, and the grooves and fissures of Mikey’s reality are etched deep. 

Mikey’s life is half of My Own Private Idaho, and the other half is a spin on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V trio of plays. Reeves (in the same year as Point Break, and before more period-piece work in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing) stars as Hal stand-in Scott Favor, the son of Portland’s mayor. On his 21st birthday, Scott will receive a sizable familial inheritance—and before then, he’s doing everything he can to piss his father off. He mocks, pranks, flirts with, and one-ups middle-aged mentor/Falstaff analogue Bob Pigeon (William Richert), in one second, sneering of Bob, “He was fucking in love with me,” and in another breath boasting, “I love Bob more than my father.” But Scott isn’t gay, he insists. He just has sex with men for money, which is a distinction of a kind. With Scott’s years of living on the street, he serves as the young punk leader of a group of street kids played by the likes of Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Van Sant’s friend Mike Parker, who was to star in the film before Phoenix joined. And he loves Mikey, and he knows Mikey is in love with him, and there is a deep ocean of agony and anguish between the gap in platonic and romantic

The ‘90s were a time of adventurous, experimental, refreshingly weird Shakespeare adaptations (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Julie Taymor’s Titus, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, which yes, came out in 2000, but is pure pre-Y2K in its vibe, man), and My Own Private Idaho certainly ranks among them. This is Van Sant revving up for the campy delight of To Die For and the melancholy effectiveness of Good Will Hunting, and My Own Private Idaho exists somewhere between those two later projects. Udo Kier doing a cabaret-style lip synch? Unexpectedly entertaining! Reeves cradling Phoenix’s body at the base of a statue decorated with the phrase “THE COMING OF THE WHITE MAN”? Cheekily affecting! How the two mirror each other’s loose-limbed dusting-off movements after disembarking from Scott’s motorcycle? Uncannily synchronous! A lengthy mid-film sequence in which hustlers played by real street kids, like Parker, stare slightly away from the camera and recount in detail their experiences of abuse and assault? Unforgettably harrowing! And what makes this unlikely combination gel at all is the perfect duality of Phoenix and Reeves, and the contrasting vivacity they bring to their roles. 

There is nothing else to say about the film’s campfire-confession scene, which was written by Phoenix, further improvised by him and Reeves, and performed with soul-crushing vulnerability, past “It’s perfect, actually.”(Actually, one thing: Who Phoenix brings to mind most is James Dean in Giant, when his ambitious, besotted, wounded Jett chugs a glass of bourbon before gently offering tea to Elizabeth Taylor’s Leslie.) So let us turn our attention elsewhere, to other examples of Phoenix’s fragility and Reeves’s cocksureness. Mikey’s childish pose as he kneels next to a bathroom door, asking the client who just threw cash on his bare chest for another $2. Scott caressing his hands down his own wide-stanced body, framing his crotch, and sneering at Bob’s covetous expression. Mikey’s set jaw as he listens to older brother Richard (James Russo) describe their missing mother’s series of increasingly worse choices, and his spit out, “Don’t fuck me in the head anymore, man.” A shirtless, cowboy hat-wearing Scott as a live model on the cover of the magazine Male Call, bragging about how he’s “better at full-body poses.” Their bodies together in Van Sant’s manicured and meticulous still life-like sex scenes: Mikey and Scott’s heads turned toward each other over another man’s crotch, Mikey’s hand woven into Scott’s hair, their bodies on either side of a client’s, their open mouths breathing into each other. The professional made personal, the personal made professional, and all kinds of questions about bodily utility and bodily autonomy bubbling up to the surface like so many orgasms. 

“It will just be one endless party, won’t it?” the hustlers say to each other, but that’s not true. “Maybe I’ll run into you down the road,” Scott says when he abandons Mikey, but that’s not true, either. Instead, Scott turns toward his inheritance, a wife, and a life of power, prestige, and wealth, and he turns away from Mikey. In the realm of My Own Private Idaho, that is one tragedy, and outside of the film, Phoenix’s real-life death was another. Phoenix and Reeves are the kind of beautiful in this film that comes with the optimism, possibility, and potential of youth, and any instance of watching My Own Private Idaho in the years since is to accept that life is as fleeting as a night spent together, a ride on a motorcycle, or a memory of your mother. This ended up being another essay about River Phoenix, and for that I apologize. But when a performance is that crystalline, that evocative, and that era-defining, ignoring it feels like a sin. Rest in peace, River. 

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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