Gus Van Sant incorporates portions of Shakespeare’s Henry IV into his moving tale of two gay hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) working the streets of Portland.
Gus Van Sant’s cult-classic road movie, about a pair of male hustlers hitching and tricking their way from Portland to Seattle to Italy to Idaho and back again, is rightly acclaimed as a landmark of modern queer cinema, but it also deserves recognition as one of the most offbeat examples of Shakespeare on film. Inspired by a viewing of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, Van Sant cross-bred his primary narrative centred on the narcoleptic Mike (River Phoenix) with a partial replaying of Henry IV featuring Mike’s friend and fellow hustler, rich-kid refugee Scott (Keanu Reeves), as Prince Hal and an aging gay homeless man named Bob (William Richert) as Falstaff. Though this is far from a conventional adaptation, the intentionally jarring contrast between gritty realism and overt stylization (the characters even occasionally slip into the actual text of Shakespeare’s play) paradoxically makes the emotional core of Van Sant’s story all the more sincere and touching.
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