On this day in 1991, My Own Private Idaho, an independent film written and directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, premieres at the New York Film Festival. The movie told the story of two young male hustlers, one of whom (Phoenix) is a hapless narcoleptic searching for the mother who abandoned him, and the other of whom (Reeves) comes from a wealthy family (the character was inspired, in part, by Shakespeare’s Prince Hal in Henry IV). The pair meets in Portland, Oregon, and later travels to Idaho and Italy. My Own Private Idaho–the title reportedly came from a song by the rock band the B-52s–was nominated for six Independent Spirit Awards and won for Best Screenplay, Best Male Lead (Phoenix) and Best Film Music.
Gus Van Sant, who was born on July 24, 1952, received a strong critical reception for his first film, 1985’s Mala Noche, about a romance between a gay liquor store clerk and a Mexican immigrant. The writer-director became a star in the indie film world with 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, about four Portland junkies (led by a character played by Matt Dillon) who rob pharmacies to feed their addictions. Van Sant’s first Hollywood project was the black comedy To Die For (1995), which starred Nicole Kidman as a weather girl who convinces her teenage lover (played by Joaquin Phoenix, River’s younger brother) to murder her husband, played by Dillon. Van Sant achieved major mainstream success when he directed 1997’s Good Will Hunting, which earned nine Academy Award nominations (including Best Director and Best Picture) and won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Robin Williams. Van Sant’s directorial credits also include a 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho; 2000’s Finding Forrester, starring Sean Connery; Elephant (2003), about 1999’s Columbine High School massacre; and Last Days (2005), about the late musician Kurt Cobain.
River Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970, and began his professional acting career as a teenager. His early movie credits included Stand by Me (1986), Little Nikita (1988) and Running on Empty (1988), which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Phoenix went on to appear in such films as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); I Love You to Death (1990), which co-starred Keanu Reeves; Dogfight (1991) and The Thing Called Love (1993). On October 31, 1993, Phoenix, considered one of the most promising actors of his generation, died of a drug overdose at the age of 23 outside a Hollywood club called The Viper Room. Phoenix’s younger brother is the Academy Award-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix, whose movie credits include Gladiator (2000) and Walk the Line (2005).
Reeves, born on September 2, 1964, first rose to fame with the 1989 comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He went on to star in a long list of movies, including the 1994 blockbuster Speed, with Sandra Bullock, and the mega-hit 1999 sci-fi thriller The Matrix and its two sequels.