Pretty boys in the 1990s usually wore bulky corduroy jackets and tight hats too small to fit their heads, and that's exactly what Mike (River Phoenix) is sporting when we first see him on the road in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991). Phoenix's performance as Mike–sweetly lost, feral, "who me?" sexy–paves the way for Jared Leto's Jordan Catalano, for grunge and Kurt Cobain, and for the collected works of Ethan Hawke. Like many '90s pretty boys, Mike is a connoisseur of his own damaged feelings. He makes self-destruction look fatally appealing and glamorous. Phoenix was compared to James Dean in his own short life and career, and that's because he had "love me!" pleas down to a science on screen and a similar unhinged physicality that is sometimes closer to the Polish street theater ravings proscribed by acting theoretician Jerzy Grotowski than Dean's more contained Actors Studio contortions.
A male prostitute who suffers from narcolepsy, Mike is forever getting stressed out and falling into sleep. On an Idaho highway, he touches his face in a self-conscious way, and we see his dirty-fingernailed hands start to quiver and his eyes start to shut as narcolepsy takes him and lays him out stiff on the pavement. Cut to time-lapse photographs of clouds scudding swiftly across infinite horizons.
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