MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991) dir. Gus Van Sant
The centerpiece of River’s performance, and the film, is a campfire scene with Reeves. Scott Favor takes Mike Waters on a road trip (on a stolen motorcycle) to visit Mike’s brother. At night, sitting by a fire they’ve made, they discuss their respective childhoods: “If I had a normal family and a good upbringing, then I would have been a well-adjusted person,” Mike insists. What’s really on his mind: he’s in love with Scott, and he’s terrified of saying so.
“I only have sex with a guy for money,” a reclining Scott tells him. “Two guys can’t love each other.”
A miserable Mike says haltingly, “I could love someone even if I, you know, wasn’t paid for it. And I love you, and you don’t pay me.” Curling up in a ball, he tells Scott, “I really want to kiss you, man.” The scene ends with Scott gently holding Mike, stroking his hair.
“This is the best part in the film,” Van Sant said, “and was chosen by River to be his big scene.” At River’s request, Van Sant scheduled it for the last day of shooting. River rewrote it himself, making it more lyrical and making his love for Scott explicit (in Van Sant’s original script, the relationship was more ambiguous).
“‘I love you, and you don’t have to pay me’—I’m so glad I wrote that line,” River said. “I think that in his private life, Mike was probably a virgin, so he only relates sex with work.” River had spent some time thinking about situational virginity, and the emotional consequences of having sex when you didn’t want to have it.
— Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood he left behind by Gavin Edwards