The open road and the “messed-up” faces along the way are what haunt lost hustler Mike (River Phoenix) most in My Own Private Idaho. In Gus Van Sant’s seminal 1991 gay road movie Mike trips through narcoleptic encounters with both male and female clients, Wizard of Oz-style barns crashing to the ground, talking porno mag covers, tableaux vivants sex scenes and Shakespeare’s Henry IV. His is an eventful, hardscrabble life filled with grit and longing. Each scene arouses memorable moments that every Idaho fan — gay, bi, straight or whatever it takes to have a nice day — surely still carries with them.
The most hopelessly romantic moment in the film and one of its best scenes is Mike’s campfire stopover. Somewhere out there on the prairie, in their very own private corner of Idaho, Mike and his ‘prince’ Scott (Keanu Reeves) make a fire and hunker down for the night. The prairie is dark and the fire’s embers glow like Mike’s unrequited feelings. He wants to set his spurs a-jinglin’, so ventures a question
I’d like a talk with you. I’d like to, uh, really talk with you.”
The way Phoenix coyly shares his feelings arouses familiar echoes of eternally unreciprocated desire. That's a commonplace scenario in gay cinema, but one that Phoenix renders extra special. Mike exhibits the shy neediness that often comes with the territory. But he can’t reign in his feelings for Scott any longer. His courage nonplusses Scott, who shifts position (out of discomfort?) "I only have sex with a guy for money... two guys can’t love each other,” he asserts being purely ‘gay for pay’. “It’s good to be good friends... that’s a good thing,” Mike agrees, resignedly.
Mike’s ‘queer eye for the straight guy’ is temporarily fogged. Squatting almost into a ball, he pokes idly at the fire. His downcast eyes can’t meet Scott’s gaze out of a likely fear of seeing rejection in his expression. But, what the hell! Mike goes for broke:
I could love someone, even if I, you know, wasn’t paid for it. I love you and… you don’t pay me.”
These are the most heartbreaking eighteen words spoken in the film. They are small words, softly spoken, but filled with real pain. It’s the crux of the matter and the line that connects these two shabby street dudes. And here is Mike risking his world slipping off its axis.
Hurrah for him and his vagabond vanguard ways! Of course, it transpires that it’s not to be. The scene ends with comfort, bonding, friendship — but not the heart swell Mike craves. He wants a life of reaching for forever, with Scott by his side. Alas, Van Sant’s story is one of fierce solitude imposed on the boundless wanderers of the world and so the road to romance gets blocked. But for a moment it’s flushed with a warm connection. We’ve all been there, Mike. Another time, eh?
Wherever, whatever, have a nice day.