On This Gay Day: Director Gus Van Sant was born

Van Sant

Film director Gus Van Sant was born in 1952

Gus Van Sant has been behind many memorable and conversation-sparking films including My Own Private Idaho, Elephant, Good Will Hunting and Milk, the bio-pic of groundbreaking gay politician Harvey Milk.

Van Sant is one of the most prominent directors of the New Queer cinema movement of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. While his films often feature gay characters their sexuality is usually secondary to the story being told.

Van Sant grew up in many different parts of America as his father’s job saw the family move regularly. When he reached college in 1970 he initially studied painting, but soon switched to filmmaking.

Living in Los Angeles in the late 1970’s he became fascinated with the seedier parts of the city and the down-and-out people who inhabited the areas. It would become a major influence on his later work.

After spending two years working for an advertising agency in New York, Van Sant saved up enough money to make his first low-budget feature film. Mala Noche was filmed in black and white and followed the doomed love story of a gay liquor store clerk and a Mexican immigrant.

The film was a critical success and attracted the attention of Hollywood. Van Sant pitched some of his film ideas to Hollywood executives, but none were given the green light. The director moved to Portland, Oregon and began making his next film independently.

Drugstore Cowboy was based on the unpublished autobiographical novel by James Fogle. It followed a group of drug addicts who travelled across America robbing hospitals and pharmacies to support their addiction. The film revived the career of teen heart-throb Matt Dillon, and featured future stars Kelly Lynch and Heather Graham. Writer William S. Burroughs also appears in the film.

After the success of Drugstore Cowboy studios were eager to work with Van Sant, and his next film was one the studios had deemed too risky to make just a few years earlier. My Own Private Idaho saw River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves play hustlers Mike Walter and Scott Favor. The narrative of the film is based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V.

Upon it’s release the film was surrounded in controversy, people were shocked by two of Hollywood’s brightest stars appearing as male sex workers, and while it might seem surprising today, there was a lot of discussion about the film’s depictions of gay sex. Most of the sex scenes in the film are presented as a series of ambiguous black and white photos.  The film was a critical success and loved by arthouse audiences.

Van Sant’s next film saw him being given a much larger budget. He had USD$8.5 million for his adaptation of Tom Robbin’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues which saw him work again with Heather Graham, Reeves and Phoenix, as well as a cast of stars including Uma Thurman, John Hurt, Angie Dickinson, Lorraine Bracco, Noriyku ‘Pat’ Morita, Roseanne, Crispin Glover, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, and many others. It was a massive flop.

In 1995 the director offered To Die For, starring Matt Dillon, Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix. The black comedy saw Kidman pick up a Golden Globe award and it pushed her career in the USA forward and out from under the shadow of then-husband Tom Cruise. Van Sant also served a producer on Larry Clark’s controversial film Kids.

Good Will Hunting is one of the director’s most commercially successful films. The movie, written by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, picked up the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, a Best Supporting Actor statue for Robin Williams and Van Sant was named the Best Director. Van Sant’s other studio films included his remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the Sean Connery film Finding Forrester.   

Returning to the arthouse scene Van Sant delivered Gerry, a film which saw Casey Affleck and Matt Damon wandering around in the desert is conversation. His next film Elephant is one of the most controversial of his career, it follows two teenage boys in the day leading up to them perpetrating a mass shooting. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The director concluded what he dubbed as his ‘death trilogy’ with Last Days – a fictionalised account of the final days of musician Kurt Cobain.  

2008 saw Van Sant working with Sean Penn on the autobiographical film Milk. The story charting the rise of openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk

Gus Van Sant’s later films include Restless (2011) staring Mia Masikowska, Promised Land (2012) with Frances McDormand, Matt Damon and John Krasinski, and Sea of Trees (2015) with Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe.

His most recent release is 2018’s Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot which dramatised the life of cartoonist John Callahan. The film features Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Rooney Mara, Beth Ditto, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein.

OIP Staff, Image: Harald Krichel, published under a Creative Commons license. 

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