Second Breakfast columnist Chris Melville has a series of articles on Shakespeare adaptations/movies influenced by the author’s works, and so I am going to encroach entirely on his territory with this article. Fortunately, though, the movie I’ll be discussing also fits into Tuesday Zone territory, since it is a deconstruction of the role of masculinity in some of Shakespeare’s histories. So, without further ado:
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Plot: Mike Waters (River Phoenix)—a young, gay (potentially bisexual) hustler who suffers from narcoleptic fits—lives on the streets of Portland. His friend, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), is also a hustler, although he will give up that way of life upon his twenty-first birthday; his father, the mayor, will bequeath his fortune unto him. Mike and Scott screw around in Portland with other young hustlers, who find a kind of leader in the reckless Bob Pigeon (William Richert), and eventually go on a journey to find Mike’s mother. Their trip takes them to Idaho, Italy, and back.
Although it might not be immediately clear, My Own Private Idaho is a structurally loose but unique interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V. These three plays—the last three of a tetralogy and sometimes referred to as the Henriad—follow Prince Hal, son of King Henry IV of England, as he goes from reckless youth to King Henry V. Hal is a complex character because his motivations are not always clear, and his actions are at times hard to reconcile with his proclaimed inner self. He often informs the audience that he is hanging out in taverns with criminals so that, when he is forced to become king, people will be surprised by how quickly he abandons his life of frivolity and acts like a responsible monarch. But the way that Hal shrugs off his friends, namely the obese, goofy, and absurd tavern-dweller and robber Falstaff, has often left audiences and critics thinking of him as a cold, heartless man.
My Own Private Idaho reshapes this narrative into one about hustlers, with Scott taking the role of Hal, Bob Pigeon the role of Falstaff, and Mike—the central character in this film—the role of a relatively minor character named Poins. The shifted focus to Mike creates a secondary perspective into Scott’s transformation from a socially unacceptable character into a societal definition of proper, which illuminates aspects of Hal that are often not considered by those discussing Hal’s motivations and actions in the Henriad: namely, the role that constricting definitions of masculinity have in transforming Hal. By virtue of reshaping the Henriad into a New Queer Cinema film, director Gus Van Sant illuminates Shakespeare’s original text, which is more than many straight adaptations attempt—and sometimes fail completely—to accomplish.
Although there are many dimensions of transformation in how Van Sant adapts the text, the one that I think is most unique and interesting—at least, for those who are aware that the movie is an adaptation—is the way Scott acts against social norms as compared to the way Hal does. Scott is a tavern-goer, and ultimately wastes significant amounts of time on booze and other non-regal things. This is a huge point in Henry IV, Part 1: Hal is not worthy of being King, because he is so unlike another key character, Hotspur; while Hal screws around, Hotspur fights in battles, thinks about fighting in battles, and gets angry at people who won’t fight in battles with him. Hotspur is a paradigm of masculinity, and so Hal’s inability to live up to his standard—which his father, the King, belabors—is in many ways a commentary on Hal’s failure because of his lack of masculinity.
Van Sant ingeniously highlights this by making Scott’s homosexual—and frivolously sexual—behavior serve as the schism between him and his father. He is undesirable as a son of the mayor because he does not exist in the world of heterosexual, conservatively sexual society. So, when Mike and Scott finally take their trip and Scott finds a nice Italian girl, Carmella (Chiara Caselli), to settle down with, Scott is transforming himself into a person acceptable by societal standards. The depressing degree to which Scott is totally changed is highlighted by refocusing the narrative on Mike, as it makes us consider who is left on the sidelines by Scott’s behavior. When taken back to the Henriad, we see a clear painting of Hal as someone who is forced to become a new person—one who is colder and generally more stoic—because of the expectations of men who are to take on any position of power.
My Own Private Idaho manages to create both a brand new story out of Shakespeare’s texts, and at the same time both reflect and illuminate the depth of the characters who have long stayed in the minds of readers, playgoers, and scholars alike. When the insightful script that Van Sant wrote is paired with solid direction and fantastic acting (in particular on the part of River Phoenix), you get a Shakespeare adaptation that is that and more. Idaho is an intriguing movie, and in my opinion, a damn good one. I haven’t covered nearly everything that this movie manages to do, but I think that what I have discussed reveals the film’s depth. Idaho lingers, making you question the material long after the story has wrapped up, and in that way Van Sant most honors the importance and power of Shakespeare’s fantastically complex plays.