NOTE: A slightly different version of this essay appears in Ganymede Unfinished, out now from Sibling Rivalry Press.
Rewatching Gus van Sant’s magnificently playful and daring My Own Private Idaho (1991) always is a striking experience. How great isn’t it to see River Phoenix again, the talented dreamboat whose untimely death from an overdose in 1993 left a hole it took the emergence of Leonardo DiCaprio to even begin to fill? And it’s always refreshing to watch a Keanu Reeves movie without feeling the instant need to jump out the window as soon as he starts talking, Few movies have made his limitations into strenghts like Idaho did. Still, the movie is interesting even in a broader sense. It reminds me of why I find the subject of the gay hustler so interesting.
For one thing, it just intuitively holds so much cinematic potential. There’s the purely visual side of it, of course. Movie hustlers tend to be young and beautiful, and their youth itself offers filmmakers a metaphor for both vulnerability, rebellion and the struggle to find your own way in life. This is the hustler as a fierce individualist, the determined loner who takes some pride in rejecting the mainstream life. But there is also the constant tension inherent in hustling. You may take pleasure from it, either sexually or through a sense of self-worth from knowing other people find you attractive, but that doesn’t take away the fact that in the end it’s an exchange of sex for money. Hustling is by nature an intimate act, but it nonetheless requires emotional detachment. And in this detachement lies the realization that a life in hustling comes with risks. Not even the fierce individualist is immune to the threat of disease or violence. I think part of its cinematic appeal stems from the fact that hustling goes beyond a rebellious pose. You can’t escape the tension.
Finally, the social and political element of hustling lends itself well to cinema. It’s debatable whether all who go into hustling to break free from social constraints are doing so entirely independent from their social status, but there are even more clean-cut cases of people who hustle because they don’t have a choice. It doesn’t have to be organized crime or human trafficking; it may simply be someone who hustles to get by financially. This is perhaps the toughest balancing act of portraying hustling in the movies. On the one hand, you want to acknowledge the less glamorous side of hustling, and the fact that the rebellious side of it may not seem very relevant to those who do it for other reasons. On the other hand, though, you wouldn’t want to come off as heavy-handed or overly moralizing. Stories that are 100% glossy or 100% grim are never interesting. If you want to use hustling as a kind of social commentary, you need to do it with nuance and precision.
In many ways, My Own Private Idaho could serve as an an example of how this balancing act can be achieved. The movie tells the story of Mike (Phoenix), a young, gay narcoleptic hustler who cruises the streets of Portland, Oregon, with his rebellious best friend Scott (Reeves), heir to a family fortune and a political dynasty. To Scott, who insists he’s straight, hustling is presumably something he does mainly to mark his independence from his family, and a way for him to break free from the dull conformity of his social class. It’s hustling as force of liberation, but at the same time it’s not the act of hustling itself that liberates him, it’s knowing that his father disapproves of it. For someone as strong, pretty and independent as Scott, life on the streets is something he can turn away from in an instant if he wants to, for several reasons. It’s neither an economic necessity, an expression of real rejection of mainstream norms or behavior (as seen in his eventual return to the family), nor something he seeks out for purely emotional or other reasons. Because Scott is hustling for what we could call personal reasons, cinematically, we could write him down in the fierce individualist column.
Mike’s social background differs widely from Scott’s, and his admission that he is in love with his best friend opens up some ways to understand his role as a hustler. I generally hate attempts to fit people into a sort of Freudian gay essentialism, in which a person’s family history or the fact that he’s gay is used as shorthand to explain his fundamental character, but in the case of Mike, it may actually be illuminating. Mike’s gayness would suggest that he gets something else out of hustling than Scott does, although we never get to know anything directly about what he thinks about its sexual aspect. Both his need in some way to live out his gayness and his search for his absent mother, that makes up the narrative thrust of the non-linear movie, could fit metaphorically with the entourage that both Mike and Scott are part of. The gang is centered around the shoddy presence of Bob, perhaps standing in as the father figure Mike never had. Mike seems to appreciate the social inclusiveness of the gang more than Scott does, furthering the sense that simce he never expresses any interest in leaving hustling, Mike rather is another kind of hustler: Unlike Scott, he doesn’t seem to be in hustling just for the adventure, but there are no signs that he’s doing it against his will. It’s hustling as a way of life. These two types of hustlers are only one of several things that make My Own Private Idaho an intellectually and visually stimulating experience.
In a way, the flipside of Scott’s and Mike’s individualism often is loneliness. That’s why it’s interesting that My Own Private Idaho is directly referenced in another movie with a prominent character with a hustler past, John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006). The suicidal James tells a new friend that he was inspired by Idaho to start hustling. In addition to consolidating the important position that Idaho holds in gay cinema, this can be read as confirmation of the almost mythological power that the idea of hustling can have on youth.
There may be something alluringly subversive and liberating for young gays in the prospect of hustling, and even though James’ every word is steeped in an underlying sense of sadness, he also talks about how hustling in some ways made him more confident («So it was a choice?» asks his friend. «Yeah,» says James, «I loved it, actually. I knew exactly what I was worth, you know. Exactly what I had to contribute.») James’ story may not fit neatly into the relatively trouble-free hustler narrative of Idaho, but it’s in keeping with the idea of hustling as some sort of self-affirmation for young people. The fact that James’ hustling is now in his past, however, suggests that the hustler-as-free-spirit theme only fits a certain type of people, at a certain time in their lives. This could not only have to do with the eternal hunger for youth and beauty that permeates much of the trade of sexual services, but also that the hustler’s potential for rebellion fades as he grows older.
Like James’ in Shortbus, Neill McCormick in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004) initially seems to embrace hustling not so much as an act of necessity than as a natural step for an adventurous young gay man. We may suspect that Neill is driven into hustling in an attempt to feel appreciated, in the same way that he once embraced the sense of appreciation he got from a man who molested him when he was a kid , but before he finally acknowledges those dark feelings, he frames his hustling as part a search for sexual release and part as a way to exert control over other people. Unlike both Mike, Scott and James, and regardless of how satisfied they are with being hustlers, it’s not immediately clear to what extent Neill can be said to have gone into hustling solely because he chose to. Neill may be able to convince himself that he’s the embodiment of the brave hustling individualist in the mythical tradition, but that ignores the effect that his childhood experiences have had in shaping his need to be worshiped by his clients.
For one final example, consider Kevin Zegers’ character, Toby, in Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica (2005).Here, to a greater extent than in any of the other movies we’ve discussed, the economic aspect of hustling comes into focus. When Bree (Felicity Huffman) needs money to continue her travel back to Los Angeles to complete her sex-change, Toby immediately, though without telling her, offers his services to an older man at the local diner. From this, and the fact that Toby’s ambition is to make a career in gay porn, we learn that it falls naturally to him to use hustling as an economic survival strategy. If we assume that this was how Toby made his living even before Bree showed up, we get the impression, judging from the place he lives in, that it’s not exactly a glamorous life. Also, to a greater extent than in My Own Private Idaho, drug (ab)use is portrayed as a disturbing part of Toby’s coping strategy. If we were to reduce him to a hustler type, Toby would probably end up closer to Neill McCormick than Scott Favor: Although Toby apparently is aware of his ability to make money off his body, it also is something he has to do, thus robbing him of much of the revered independence of the hustler as a mythological figure.
I could have gone on to point to Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ comfortably bisexual hustler in Nicholas Perry’s Speedway Junky (1999), or the supposedly straight Marty Pucco (the late, great Brad Renfro) operating at the unclear margins of hustling in Larry Clark’s Bully (2001), but instead, I’ll simply raise two quick final points.
The first is how the issue of AIDS is practically absent. Granted, the hustler theme is only a minor plot point in Transamerica, but Toby’s lifestyle would suggest that it at least be part of the equation, if only implicitly. Even though Toby faces exactly the same risks as Neill in Mysterious Skin, whose best friend Wendy constantly urges him to «be safe», this aspect of hustling is never addressed in Transamerica. The same is true for the highly sexual and very queer Shortbus. That said, it’s an avowedly sex-positive film, and if that’s your mission, AIDS of course is a potential mood-killer. But not even My Own Private Idaho, although it’s the closest in time to the outbreak of AIDS, tackles it directly. Although Idaho is often considered part of the New Queer Cinema wave consisting of a set of highly AIDS-aware and provocative films from the early nineties, I’d argue that it has more in common with the post-NQC movies discussed here. B. Ruby Rich, the feminist film critic who coined the phrase New Queer Cinema for the British magazine Sight & Sound in 1992, has later declared the trend dead.
It’s hard to know for sure, but I get the sense that New Queer Cinema in some ways took the issue of AIDS off the table. Or, perhaps better, handled it in such a way that others didn’t have to. Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992) for instance, a cynical road movie about two HIV-positive gay men, seemingly made an aggressive case for the gay outsider. Being bearers of an incurable disease, they feel liberated to wreak havoc upon the heteronormative world in any way they want. The movie’s ethos of challenging the stereotype of the weak and sick homosexual worthy of a moment’s pity from a straight audience, soon became a running theme in New Queer Cinema, as seen in John Greyson’s Zero Patience (1993) and others.
The second and final question relates to the more problematic side of the hustler as a symbol of independence. To me, it’s somewhat surprising how the implicit embrace of the “liberating” (self-affirming, subversive etc) potential of selling sex seems to be an exclusively male phenomenon. I couldn’t find any even vaguely similarly themed movies with female prostitutes as their protagonists. And think about it: Could you imagine a young female prostitute being portrayed as just as liberated and independent as any of the these young men? Neither can I. Once female prostitution is the issue in a movie, the threat of violence, illness and human trafficking lurks just below the surface. However, my point isn’t necessarily to ask for more liberated female movie prostitutes, although that would be a nice change of perspective. Rather, I’m gonna leave on a couple of rhetorical questions: With Mysterious Skin as the exception, why does today’s mainstream American gay cinema seem to take so little interest in the darker aspects of hustling? Am I simply watching the wrong movies?
My Private Idaho has been on my list for the longest time but I still haven’t seen it. I like how you tell me a lot about the movie without giving too much away so I might still rent it/Netflix it soon :)
you definitely should check out ‘Idaho’. It’s a great movie, but not in any ‘unquestionable masterpiece’ kind of way. Once you give in to its whims and quirks, though, it’s a truly remarkable and moving piece of cinema.
It always makes me miss River Phoenix. Or, not miss, exactly, more like mourn. I was only 8 when he died, but in the years that followed I continued to hear a lot about how his death had created a void that Leonardo DiCaprio eventually came to fill. Every time I think about Phoenix it also makes me miss Heath Ledger, since he too was one of the Young Dead. It’s so sad to think about what great movies and performances they could have given us if they had lived.
Also, of course, I associate River with Bryan’s poem ‘If River Phoenix Had Lived’ from MLaA.