My Own Private Idaho (1991)

3 mins read

My Own Private Idaho is available to rent or buy now.

You may think that a film based on male prostitution would focus on sex. But Gus Van Sant’s 1991 picture never wraps itself in stereotypical themes of prostitution and sexuality. Instead, My Own Private Idaho plays with Shakespeare’s Henry IV part I and II while embedding these themes in Portland, Oregon’s urban bustle and rural beauty. Here, Van Sant dovetails the freedom of Oregon’s open landscapes with a suffocating yet intoxicating cityscape. Scott (Keanu Reeves) and Mike (River Phoenix) care for each other, sharing their hopes and dreams within a fine mesh of male love and unrequited longing.

For River and Keanu, My Own Private Idaho posed a considerable risk; after all, this was a film centred around themes that remained taboo in 90s America. By taking on Van Sant’s picture, both men would subvert their teen idol status as they explored the world of the male street hustler. However, for River, Idaho represented an opportunity to fully immerse himself in a character he could build from the street up, his escape from the teen idol of his past precisely what he was looking for.


River’s urge to immerse himself in the character of Mike led him to spend nights on Portlands city streets. Here he would talk with rent boys while momentarily living their life and possibly (although never confirmed) dabble in their work. Equally, Keanu also spent time building an understanding of Idaho’s world. However, it was River’s mission to ensure his character accurately gave voice to the men and boys wrapped in prostitution that would result in one of his finest on-screen performances. His Oscar-worthy performance, ultimately too risky for Hollywood recognition.

My Own Private Idaho takes us on an unforgettable journey into love amidst pain and hurt, companionship amidst isolation and, a desperate need for belonging and safety. The result is one of the finest LGBTQ+ films of the past 30 years and one of the most complex depictions of the hidden world of male prostitution.

Cast:  River PhoenixKeanu ReevesJames Russo

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