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My Own Private Idaho

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Title: My Own Private Idaho  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Gus Van Sant, River Phoenix, 1991 New York Film Critics Circle Awards, Keanu Reeves, Flea (musician)
Collection: 1990S Adventure Films, 1990S Avant-Garde and Experimental Films, 1990S Drama Films, 1990S Lgbt-Related Films, 1991 Films, American Adventure Films, American Avant-Garde and Experimental Films, American Drama Films, American Films, American Lgbt-Related Films, Bisexuality-Related Films, Buddy Films, English-Language Films, Films About Male Prostitution, Films About Prostitution, Films Based on Henry IV (Play), Films Based on Henry V (Play), Films Based on Works by William Shakespeare, Films Directed by Gus Van Sant, Films Set in Idaho, Films Set in Italy, Films Set in Oregon, Films Set in Seattle, Washington, Films Shot in Idaho, Films Shot in Oregon, Films Shot in Rome, Incest in Film, Lgbt-Related Drama Films, Male Prostitution in the Arts, Modern Adaptations of Works by William Shakespeare, New Line Cinema Films, Road Movies, Screenplays by Gus Van Sant
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

My Own Private Idaho

My Own Private Idaho
Theatrical poster
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Produced by Laurie Parker
Written by Gus Van Sant
Starring River Phoenix
Keanu Reeves
Narrated by River Phoenix
Music by Bill Stafford
Cinematography John J. Campbell
Eric Alan Edwards
Edited by Curtiss Clayton
Distributed by Fine Line Features
Release dates
  • October 18, 1991 (1991-10-18)
Running time
102 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2.5 million
Box office $6,401,336

My Own Private Idaho is a 1991 American independent adventure drama film written and directed by Gus Van Sant, loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V, and starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. The story follows two friends, Mike and Scott, 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 mother.

Van Sant originally wrote the screenplay in the 1970s, but discarded it after reading John Rechy's 1963 novel, City of Night, and concluding that Rechy's treatment of the subject of street hustlers was better than his own. Over the years, Van Sant rewrote the script, which comprised two stories: that of Mike and the search for his mother, and Scott's story as a modern update of the Henry IV plays. Van Sant had difficulty getting Hollywood financing, and at one point considered making the film on a minuscule budget with a cast of actual street kids. He sent copies of his script to Reeves and to Phoenix, assuming that they would turn it down, but both agreed to star in the film.

My Own Private Idaho had its premiere at the 48th Venice International Film Festival, and received largely positive reviews, from critics including Roger Ebert and those of The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. The film was a moderate financial success, grossing over $6.4 million in North America, which was above its estimated budget of $2.5 million. Phoenix received several awards for his performance in the film, including the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 1991 Venice Film Festival, Best Male Lead from the Independent Spirit Awards, and Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Development 3
    • Principal photography 3.1
  • Music 4
  • Reception 5
    • Critical response 5.1
    • Awards 5.2
    • Home media 5.3
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Mike (River Phoenix), a gay street hustler, is standing alone on a deserted stretch of highway.[1] He starts talking to himself and notices that the road looks “like someone’s face, like a fucked-up face.” He experiences a narcoleptic episode and dreams of his mother comforting him as he replays home movies of his childhood in his mind.

Later, after being fellated by a client in Seattle, Washington, Mike returns to his favorite spots to pick up potential clients. He is picked up by a wealthy older woman (Grace Zabriskie) who takes him to her mansion where he meets two fellow hustlers also hired by the woman. One of them is Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), Mike’s best friend, and the other is Gary (Rodney Harvey). While preparing to have sex with the woman, Mike experiences another narcoleptic fit and awakens the next day with Scott in Portland, Oregon.

Mike and Scott are soon reunited with Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a middle-aged mentor to a gang of street kids and hustlers who live in an abandoned apartment building. Scott, the son of the mayor of Portland, admits to Bob in private that when he turns 21, he will inherit his father’s fortune and retire from street hustling. Mike yearns to find his mother, and he and Scott leave Portland for Idaho to visit Mike’s older brother Richard (James Russo), who lives in a run-down trailer. Along this journey Mike confesses that he is in love with Scott. Richard tries to tell Mike who his real father is, but Mike says that he knows it is Richard. Richard tells Mike that their mother works as a hotel maid; when Mike and Scott visit the hotel, they find she has gone to Italy in search of her own family.

Mike and Scott travel to Italy where they find the country farmhouse where Mike’s mother worked, as a maid and as an English tutor. The young woman, Carmela (Chiara Caselli), who lives there tells Mike that his mother returned to the United States months ago. Carmela and Scott fall in love and return to the U.S., leaving Mike to return home on his own, brokenhearted. Scott's father dies, and Scott inherits his fortune.

Back in Portland, Bob and his gang confront a newly reformed Scott at a fashionable restaurant, but he rejects them. That night Bob has a fatal heart attack. The next day the hustlers hold a rowdy funeral for Bob, while in the same cemetery, a few yards away, Scott attends a solemn funeral for his father.[1] Mike is back on the deserted stretch of the Idaho highway. After falling into another narcoleptic stupor, two strangers pull up in a truck, thinking he's dead, they take his backpack and shoes and drive away. Moments later, an unidentified figure pulls up in a car, picks the unconscious Mike up, places him in the vehicle and drives away.



The origins of My Own Private Idaho came from John Rechy's 1963 novel, City of Night, which featured characters who were street hustlers who did not admit to being gay.[2] Van Sant's original screenplay was written in the 1970s, when he was living in Hollywood.[3] After reading Rechy's book, Van Sant realized that it was considerably better than what he was writing, so he shelved the script for years. In 1988, while editing Mala Noche, Van Sant met a street kid named Michael Parker who became a source of inspiration for the character of Mike in what would later become My Own Private Idaho.[3] Parker also had a friend named Scott, a street kid like himself. In the script, Van Sant adapted the Scott character to that of a rich kid. The character of Scott was also fashioned after people Van Sant had met in Portland who were street hustlers.[3]

Early drafts of the screenplay were set on Hollywood Boulevard, not Portland, with working titles such as Blue Funk and Minions of the Moon.[4] Reading Rechy's novel had convinced Van Sant to change the setting to Portland.[5] The script 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.[6] 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.[6] 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 mind after watching Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight.[6] The director remembers, "I thought that the Henry IV plays were really a street story. I also knew this fat guy named Bob, who had always reminded me of Falstaff and who was crazy about hustler boys". Van Sant realized that Prince Hal in the plays resembled the character of Scott and the sidekick was Mike. His script ended up becoming a literal restructuring of the Henry IV plays.[7] Van Sant got the idea for Mike's narcolepsy from a man who was a guide of sorts when the director was gathering material for the film. According to the director, he always looked like he was about to fall asleep.[8] The film's title is derived from the song "Private Idaho" by the B-52's that Van Sant heard while visiting the state in the early 1980s.[9]

Van Sant showed the script to an executive at 20th Century Fox who liked Shakespeare.[7] Eventually, he toned down the Shakespeare and made the language more modern. Van Sant was also working on a short story called My Own Private Idaho which he intended to film. It was 25 pages long and was about two Latino characters on the streets of Portland who go in search of their parents and travel to a town in Spain. One of them falls in love with a girl and leaves the other behind.[7] Van Sant had another script called The Boys of Storytown, which had the Mike and Scott characters and Mike had narcolepsy. The characters of Hans and Bob were also present. Van Sant wanted to make the film but felt that the script was not finished.[10] While editing Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant combined the scripts for Modern Days and Storytown with the Idaho short story.[10]

Initially, no studio would finance the film because of its potentially controversial and off-beat subject matter. After Drugstore Cowboy received favorable critical raves and awards, studios started to show some interest.[9] 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 including Michael Parker and actor Rodney Harvey, who was going to play Scott.[10]

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.[11] Reeves' agent was amenable to the project, but Phoenix's agent would not even show the screenplay to the young actor.[9] Not to be deterred, Van Sant got the idea for Reeves to personally deliver the film's treatment to Phoenix at his home in Florida.[11] Reeves did so over the Christmas holidays, riding his 1974 Norton Commando motorcycle from his family home in Canada to the Phoenix family ranch in Micanopy, Florida, outside Gainesville.[11] Reeves was no stranger to River Phoenix or members of his family, having worked previously with River on Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You to Death and with his brother Joaquin and girlfriend Martha Plimpton on Ron Howard's Parenthood. After reading the treatment, Phoenix agreed to play the role of Scott. However, since Van Sant had already cast Reeves in the role, they had to convince River to take on the edgier role of drug-addicted hustler Mike Waters. The director promised not to make either actor do anything embarrassing.[12] Van Sant got an offer of $2 million from an outside investor but when he put off production for nine months so that Phoenix could make Dogfight, the investor and his money disappeared.[13] Producer Laurie Parker shopped the script around and, at the time, New Line Cinema was in the process of branching out into producing arthouse films and decided to back Van Sant's vision with a USD$2.5 million budget.[9]

Principal photography

Phoenix arrived in Portland two weeks before principal photography was to begin in order to do research and Van Sant remembered, "He seemed to be changing into this character".[14] One of the film's directors of photography Eric Alan Edwards recalled that the actor looked like a street kid", and "in a very raw way he wore that role. I've never seen anybody so intent on living his role".[14] Several cast and crew members, including Michael Parker, Phoenix, Reeves and Flea lived together in a house in Portland during filming. A couple of times a week they would play music together. Due to the low budget, a typical day of shooting started at 6 am and ended at 11 pm.[14]

The film was not storyboarded and was made without a shot list.[15] The camp fire scene was originally a short, three-page scene[15] that Phoenix re-wrote into an eight-page scene where Mike professes his love for Scott so that it was more apparent that his character was gay whereas Van Sant had originally made it more ambiguous.[11] Reeves reportedly was not comfortable with this aspect of the film as he said in an interview, "I'm not against gays or anything, but I won't have sex with guys. I would never do that on film. We did a little of it in Idaho and, believe me, it was hard work. Never again".[11]

Eric Edwards shot the time-lapse photography shots on his own.[16] They were not in the script and the film's producer was worried that he was using up too much film. Van Sant originally had the screen go black when Mike passed out but was not satisfied with this approach. He used Edwards' footage as a way of "an altered sense of time" from Mike's perspective.[16] Some executives at New Line were not in favor of the Shakespeare scenes and wanted Van Sant to cut them all out. However, foreign distributors wanted as much Shakespeare in the film as possible.[17]


No soundtrack album was released for the film. The songs that play during the film are:

  1. Eddy Arnold – "The Cattle Call"
  2. Rudy Vallee – "Deep Night"
  3. Bill Stafford – "Home on the Range"
  4. Bill Stafford – "America the Beautiful"
  5. Madonna – "Cherish"
  6. Elton John – "Blue Eyes"
  7. Jean Poulot – "Bachu Ber"
  8. Udo Kier – "Der Adler"
  9. Elliot Sweetland – "When the Saints Go Marching In"
  10. Lori Presthus – "The Funerals"
  11. Conrad "Bud" Montgomery – "Getting Into the Outside"
  12. The Pogues – "The Old Main Drag"
  13. Aleka's Attic – "Too Many Colors"


My Own Private Idaho was first shown at the 1991 Venice Film Festival[18] and received a gala screening at 16th Toronto Film Festival[19] and was also screened at the 29th New York Film Festival.[20]

The film was released theatrically on September 27, 1991 in 98 theaters. It grossed USD$6.4 million in North America, above its estimated budget of $2.5 million.[21]

Critical response

Van Sant's film achieved critical acclaim. Film critic [25] Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A−" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "When Van Sant shows us speeded-up images of clouds rolling past wheat fields, the familiar device transcends cliche, because it's tied to the way that Mike, in his benumbed isolation, experiences his own life – as a running piece of surrealism. The sheer, expressive beauty of those images haunted me for days."[26] J. Hoberman, in his review for The Village Voice, wrote, "While Phoenix vanishes with reckless triumph into his role, Reeves stands, or occasionally struts, uneasily beside his, unable to project even the self-mocking wit of Matt Dillon's star turn in Drugstore Cowboy."[27] Hal Hinson from the Washington Post wrote “Gus Van Sant‘s sensibility is wholly original, wholly fresh. My Own Private Idaho adds a new ingredient: a kind of boho sweetness. I loved it.” [28]

However, USA Today gave My Own Private Idaho two and half stars out of four, criticizing Van Sant's film for being "nothing but set pieces; tossed into a mix whose meaning is almost certainly private".[29] Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "What plot it has is borrowed, improbably, from Henry IV, and whenever anyone manages to speak an entire paragraph, it is usually a Shakespearean paraphrase. But this is a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film."[30] In his review for The New Yorker, Terrence Rafferty wrote, "Van Sant has stranded the actor in a movie full of flat characters and bad ideas, but Phoenix walks through the picture, down the road after road after road, as if he were surrounded by glorious phantoms."[31]

Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 81% rating based on 54 reviews.[32] Metacritic gives the film a weighted average score of 77% based on 18 reviews.[33]


My Own Private Idaho received the Showtime International Critics Award at the 1991 Toronto Film Festival.[34] River Phoenix received the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 1991 Venice Film Festival.[35] The actor said, in regards to winning, "I don't want more awards. Venice is the most progressive festival. Anything else would be a token".[36] Phoenix then went on to receive Best Male Lead from the Independent Spirit Awards and Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics.[37]

Home media

In 2005, the film was remastered by The Criterion Collection and released on a two-disc DVD set.[1] The second disc features new interviews, outtakes and more information about the movie. This DVD set is accompanied by a illustrated 64-page-booklet featuring previously published articles and interviews with cast and crew and new essays by JT LeRoy and Amy Taubin, a 1991 article by Lance Loud and reprinted interviews with Van Sant, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.[38] Entertainment Weekly gave the DVD a "B+" rating and wrote, "While you may enjoy watching My Own Private Idaho, whether you choose to view this two-disc Criterion edition in its entirety depends on how much you enjoy watching people talking about My Own Private Idaho", and concluded, "But with all the various interpretations and influences, this is definitely a film worth talking about".[38]

In 2015 The Criterion Collection released the film in Blu-ray, based on a restored 4K digital transfer.[39]


  1. ^ a b c  
  2. ^ Fuller, Graham (1993). " 
  3. ^ a b c Fuller 1993, p. xxiii.
  4. ^ Elder, Sean (October 1991). "Young Actors Go Wild with  
  5. ^ Ehrenstein, David (April 12, 2005). "Back to Idaho".  
  6. ^ a b c Lyons, Donald (1994). "Independent Visions". Ballatine Books. 
  7. ^ a b c Fuller 1993, p. xxv.
  8. ^ Bowen, Peter (Fall 1991). "His Own Private Idaho". Off-Hollywood Report. 
  9. ^ a b c d Greenberg, Harvey (Fall 1992). "My Own Private Idaho". Film Quarterly. 
  10. ^ a b c Fuller 1993, p. xxvi.
  11. ^ a b c d e Robb, Brian J (1995). " 
  12. ^ Block, Adam (September 24, 1991). "Inside Outsider  
  13. ^ Fuller 1993, p. xxxvi.
  14. ^ a b c "A Brief Life".  
  15. ^ a b Fuller 1993, p. xxxiv.
  16. ^ a b Fuller 1993, p. xxxix.
  17. ^ Fuller 1993, p. xxxviii.
  18. ^ Fuller 1993, p. 105.
  19. ^ MacInni, Craig (August 21, 1991). "Festival of Festivals fills in its open spaces".  
  20. ^ Holden, Stephentlink (September 20, 1991). "Film Festival: The Spirit Is the Focus".  
  21. ^ "My Own Private Idaho". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2008-02-21. 
  22. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 18, 1991). "My Own Private Idaho".  
  23. ^ Travers, Peter (October 17, 1991). "My Own Private Idaho".  
  24. ^ Canby, Vincent (September 27, 1991). "A Road Movie About Male Hustlers".  
  25. ^ Ansen, David (October 7, 1991). "Turning Shakespearean Tricks".  
  26. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (October 11, 1991). "My Own Private Idaho".  
  27. ^ Hoberman, J (October 1, 1991). "My Own Private Idaho".  
  28. ^ Alexander Ryll. "Essential Gay Themed Films To Watch, My Own Private Idaho". Gay Essential. Retrieved 7 February 2015. 
  29. ^ Clark, Mike (September 27, 1991). "Half-baked plot mires Idaho studs".  
  30. ^ Schickel, Richard (October 28, 1991). "Cinema".  
  31. ^ Rafferty, Terrence (October 7, 1991). "Street Theatre".  
  32. ^ "My Own Private Idaho – Rotten Tomatoes" Retrieved 27 July 2011
  33. ^ "My Own Private Idaho - Metacritic" Retrieved 27 April 2013
  34. ^ Scott, Jay (September 16, 1991). "Egoyan wins $25,000 prize – and gives it away".  
  35. ^ "Russian movie tops in Venice".  
  36. ^ Green, Tom (October 18, 1991). "Phoenix's stock rising".  
  37. ^ Corliss, Richard (November 15, 1993). "His Own Private Agony".  
  38. ^ a b Ross, Dalton (February 28, 2005). "My Own Private Idaho".  
  39. ^ "My Own Private Idaho".  

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