The Unicorn Scale: My Own Private Idaho

By Muhammad Modibo Shareef

November 10, 2021

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Photo credit: Image/Fine Line Features

Queer representation has always been a hit or miss on the global cinema stage. Characters have either reinforced negative images of the LGBTI community or humanized the queer experience throughout generations. Despite censorship and pushback, filmmakers have been able to depict same-sex desires on screen for audiences. Queer cinema had to go through an evolution to get to the raw depiction of today's films.

Leontine Sagan's Mädchen in Uniform (1931) explores intimacy between women. However, the film had to downplay some of the lesbian themes when compared to the original play. Fast-forward three decades later, Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together (1997) was screened at various film festivals and is considered one of the best works of the New Queer Cinema movement. Wong Kar-wai's movie is very explicit in its portrayal of queer characters. Representation has always existed, and over time, directors have been given more freedom in showing same-sex desires in film. Bisexuality has a place in the unfolding of how audiences get to view queer characters, which brings me to My Own Private Idaho (1991).

Mikey hugging Scott from behind and hides part of his face as well. They are in front of a purple backdrop.
Image/Fine Line Features

My Own Private Idaho is an independent film directed by Gus Van Sant. The movie focuses on Mikey Waters (River Phoenix) and Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), who share a strong friendship. They embark on a personal journey together that allows the audience to explore many topics: poverty, sex work, abandonment, and neurological disorders. The two friends travel from Portland, Oregon, to Idaho, and they ultimately end up in Rome, where their paths veer opposite ways. Mikey and Scott come from totally different backgrounds, but thoughts of their respective fractured families haunt them both. Mikey is searching for his mother while Scott is essentially running away from his father's condemning gaze.

Ultimately, Gus Van Sant's film takes an unflinching look into the lives of two teenage boys whose circumstances and yearning for love shape their complex lives. Please be warned that SPOILERS are ahead and if you are unfamiliar with our grading rubric, check it out here

What I Liked:

My Own Private Idaho tackles plenty of topics which left me with many things to admire about the film. Van Sant's movie does an excellent part in portraying sex work from a male perspective. Mikey and Scott are both street hustlers whose clientele include both men and women. We witness Mikey providing his service to a man not too far into the film, and he is later reunited with Scott when a woman coincidently hires them (and another young man) to have sex with her. The two characters engage in sex work for entirely different reasons, which I will discuss briefly.

The film includes the voices of other young men through brief dialogue that gives glimpses into their experience of sex work as well. However, My Own Private Idaho avoids character tropes that often come with how art usually presents male sex workers. For example, we see them laugh and hear about their stories and backgrounds in the film. The movie is so invested in the intricate lives of its sex-working characters that it avoids stereotyping them even when they engage in activities that stereotypes rely on, such as petty crime.

Close up of Scott and Mikey walking in the street. Mikey is smoking a cigarette.
Image/Fine Line Features

Another aspect of My Own Private Idaho that I want to highlight is the contrast between Mikey and Scott and how it relates to their reasons for doing sex work. Mikey isn't rich and doesn't have anyone to rely on, so sexual service is his only livelihood. Surprisingly, Scott comes from a very affluent background, and he is the son of the mayor of Portland. For Scott, the decision to work and roam the streets are forms of escapism from the bougie lifestyle that awaits him in the future. At one point in the film, he even mentions that he'll abandon ship once he inherits his dad's fortunes.

Despite their different motivations and social-economic statuses, there's no denying their closeness. My Own Private Idaho shows how these young men have formed a family-like community that's usually unknown to the outside world. These shared experiences, which naturally create bonds between people, benefit Mikey and Scott because they’re able to build meaningful relationships with other people.

Mikey and Scott sitting close to their group of friends sitting together at a table.
Image/Fine Line Features

Mikey's mother abandoned him at an early age. Memories of her constantly linger in his mind, especially when Mikey experiences his narcoleptic episodes. His longing for her is the catalyst for Mikey's travels with Scott throughout the film. Scott's father is present in his life but only via flesh. We learn about his dad's neglect towards Scott when he describes his father: "He has more fucking righteous gall than all the property and people he lords over and those he also created like me, his son." My Own Private Idaho splendidly shows that fractured families are a universal struggle despite social class.

What I Didn’t Like:

My Own Private Idaho contains numerous themes; I could go more in-depth about its rich layers. However, as far as dislikes, I honestly don't have much to say, so I wanted to talk about my disfavor towards the perception of the film. Many writers, critics, and casual viewers pegged My Own Private Idaho as a gay movie. People tend to put cinema with the slightest ounce of same-sex affection in that category, so I'm not surprised. Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) exemplify this pattern; the main characters in these two movies are bisexual, but audiences ignore that part.

Mikey sitting with Carmella with warm winter clothes next to a tree.
Image/Fine Line Features

There are moments in My Own Private Idaho that hint at sexual fluidity. For instance, Mikey expresses something very telling when the female client picks him up. He says, "Feels like a dream. A girl never picks me up, much less a pretty, rich girl." People often describe Mikey's character as a "gay sex worker," but I highly doubt that a gay male hustler dreams about sleeping with a beautiful and wealthy woman for money.

Mikey confesses that he loves Scott, but Scott rejects him. Viewers tend to use this scene as proof that the characters are gay because it conveniently fits the "Bury Your Gays" trope. Scott claims that he only has "sex with a guy for money" and "two guys can't love each other." This heartbreaking scene says a lot about Scott, but it doesn't indicate that either character is gay. Mikey professes his love for someone who happens to be a man. Scott's character is more complicated in regards to his sexuality. Is he a heterosexual male who does the whole "gay for pay" thing? We know he comes from a wealthy background and does what he does to rebel against his father, so is Scott using queerness and the street life to rebel against conformity? Is he closeted with severe internalized homophobia?

You can make an argument for many things, but we can't ignore the fact that he ends up developing genuine feelings towards an Italian woman who he marries. Hence, it is more accurate to describe Scott as a bisexual guy who needs to do a lot of soul-searching when placing him in the queer stratosphere. Either way, it seems that too many people don't examine these possibilities because they find it easy to label Mikey and Scott as gay men.

The Rating:

My Own Private Idaho easily gets four unicorns.

4 unicorn head emojis with purple mane.

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