Unrequited love, in all its longing and loneliness, is captured exquisitely in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. As the narcoleptic gay hustler Mike Waters, River Phoenix is utterly heartbreaking, while Keanu Reeves, as Scott Favor, a latter-day Henry V, has never been more engaging.
At the dawn of the 1990s, Phoenix and Reeves were two of Hollywood’s most in-demand young actors. Writer-director Van Sant was having trouble getting his film financed, and, on a whim, he sent both men My Own Private Idaho’s treatment, assuming they’d say no. Playing gay street hustlers, after all, wasn’t exactly a safe career choice. However, Reeves was so impressed with the work, he drove his motorcycle from his home in Canada all the way to Phoenix’s family ranch in Florida to personally discuss the project.
One of our more tragic gone-too-soon screen icons, Phoenix can, in large part, be credited for the film’s most important moment. He rewrote an ambiguous, three-page campfire scene into eight affecting pages in which Mike quietly and methodically reveals his love for Scott. “I only have sex with a guy for money,” Scott tells Mike, their faces illuminated in the dark. “And two guys can’t love each other.”
“Yeah,” Mike begins, before finding his confidence. “Well, I don’t know. I mean, for me, I could love someone. Even if I, you know, wasn’t paid for it. I love you and...you don’t pay me.”