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Shakespeare on Film: My Own Private Idaho

Shakespeare on Film: My Own Private Idaho

Articles - Acting

My Own Private Idaho (1991)
d. Gus Van Sant

In the 1980s, Gus Van Sant was already writing a screenplay about gay hustlers in Portland, Oregon, when he saw Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight and was inspired to make My Own Private Idaho double as a partial, modern-day adaptation of Henry IV.

We first encounter gay hustler Mike (River Phoenix) turning tricks in Seattle, struggling with narcolepsy and haunted by home-movie memories of his mother, Sharon. He returns home to Portland with best friend Scott (Keanu Reeves), who is straight but has gay sex for money. A cod-medieval theme announces the Falstaffian Bob Pigeon (writer-director and occasional actor William Richert), a middle-aged, obese vagrant in a navy blue bathrobe, and young Budd (a rough substitute for Falstaff’s page), as they arrive at the hustlers’ squat, the abandoned Sovereign Hotel, “managed” by elderly, frail Jane Lightwork (the Mistress Quickly figure).

Characters begin paraphrasing or quoting Henry IV, Part 1, and, though poorly spoken (Reeves and Phoenix both mumble) and wildly incongruous amid the predominant colloquialism, the language does at least clarify Scott’s Prince Hal status and Mike’s much looser association with Poins.

After twenty-five minutes of scene-for-scene adaptation, the Shakespeare is abandoned as abruptly as it was introduced. Mike and Scott visit Mike’s drunken older brother, have sex with Hans (Udo Kier), a German traveling salesman, and fly to Rome, believing Sharon is living there. In fact, she has returned to the US, but Scott falls in love with a beautiful Italian girl, Carmella, brings her back to Portland and, after claiming his dead father’s fortune, rejects Bob in a restaurant version of the Henry IV coronation scene. Bob dies of a broken heart, mourned by Lightwork (paraphrasing Quickly’s speech from Henry V). Mike hits the road again.

While editing the film, which eventually took $6.4 million in the U.S. and $1.7 million in the U.K., Van Sant deleted a seven-minute version of Falstaff’s mock-trial (now featured on the Region 1 DVD), because, he said, the Henry IV scenes “were becoming like a movie within the movie,” yet they remain exactly that. Surely baffling to anyone unfamiliar with its source, the Shakespearean content could be removed to create a perfectly coherent, though not especially engaging seventy-minute feature: Part love story (Mike’s unrequited passion for Scott; Scott’s love for Carmella), part road movie (Mike’s cross-country quest).

100 Shakespeare Films

Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at

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