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Van Sant, Gus (b. 1952)  
page: 1  2  

Good Will Hunting (1997), Van Sant's most acclaimed mainstream effort, featured veteran comedian Robin Williams as the anticipated draw. But the stars of this tale of a blue-collar math genius proved to be its writer/performer Wunderkinder, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Instead of basking in this success or repeating himself, Van Sant followed Good Will Hunting with his Psycho remake, possibly the most ambitious piece of conceptual art since Warhol.

And then came Finding Forrester (2000), another "budding genius" tale starring Sean Connery as mentor to a teen-age underdog. This commercial project is, however, filled with all sorts of personal touches, such as the lavishly orchestrated version of "Deep Night," the Rudy Vallee number used so hauntingly in My Own Private Idaho.

Van Sant followed Finding Forrester with a two-character film starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (who also share writing credit with Van Sant), Gerry (2002), and a film of teenage angst set in a Portland high school, Elephant (2003).

Given the wide thematic range of his work, it is telling that Van Sant's visual style is equally broad. It encompasses both the swoonily romantic lighting style of cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier in Good Will Hunting and the edgy, color-saturated style of cinematographer Chris Doyle in Psycho.

Van Sant's breadth of style and range of interest are complemented by his quasi-surrealist penchant for making up his next move (be it "highbrow" or "low") as he goes along. There is no way of knowing where Van Sant will find himself next. For this gay "wild card" in the Hollywood pack, being gay is simply one of many stories to be told.

[In 2005, Van Sant released Last Days, a film that he characterized as the third part of his "Death Trilogy," seeing it as completing a cycle exploring death that also includes Gerry and Elephant. It is a fictionalized account of the days leading up to the death of Kurt Cobain.

In the fall of 2008, Van Sant completed the feature film Milk, a biography of gay martyr Harvey Milk, based on an original screenplay by Dustin Lance Black and starring Sean Penn.

The film, which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and earned Van Sant an Academy Award nomination as Best Director, has been acclaimed for its dazzling performances (especially by Penn, who won the Academy Award as Best Actor in the title role, and by Josh Brolin, who won an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Dan White, Milk's assassin) and for its success in capturing the tumultuous years of the early gay rights movement in San Francisco.

The film also succeeds in humanizing its hero. Without denying the messiness of Milk's personal life, the film presents him as an ordinary man who achieved genuine heroism through his dedication to the cause of equal rights. A courageous man in the right place at the right time, Van Sant's Milk grew to fill a role that the times demanded.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Milk is its implicit suggestion that Dan White may have been a deeply closeted homosexual.]

David Ehrenstein

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arts >> Overview:  Film

Since cinema began, Hollywood has been fascinated with finding ways of representing homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Film Directors

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual film directors have been a vital creative presence in cinema since the medium's inception over one hundred years ago.

arts >> Overview:  Film Festivals

The queer film festival circuit came into its own in the early 1990s and has since burgeoned into a major international phenomenon.

arts >> Overview:  New Queer Cinema

Independent films that aggressively assert homosexual identity and queer culture, the New Queer Cinema can be seen as the culmination of several developments in American cinema.

social sciences >> Overview:  Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon is home to a thriving and increasingly visible queer community that has provided leadership for Oregon glbtq activism since the 1960s.

arts >> Overview:  Screenwriters

Although film may be a director's rather than a writer's medium, gay and lesbian screenwriters have made significant contributions to both mainstream and independent film.

arts >> Black, Dustin Lance

Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black has quickly established himself as both an accomplished filmmaker and a committed activist.

social sciences >> Bryant, Anita

Former beauty queen, popular singer, and orange juice pitchwoman, Anita Bryant became the poster-girl for homophobia in the late 1970s; her name continues to be a byword for bigotry.

literature >> Burroughs, William S.

Both in his life and his novels, American writer William S. Burroughs was an outlaw and a provocateur, focusing on sexual repression as the fundamental element of social control and writing in a surrealistic and bitterly satirical mode.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

arts >> Singer, Bryan

Film director and producer Bryan Singer overturns standard narrative formulae and develops complex characters; he consistently emphasizes the fluidity and ambiguity of identity categories, including those pertaining to gender and sexuality.

arts >> Warhol, Andy (as filmmaker)

Although Andy Warhol is generally remembered either for a single film--Sleep (1963)--or for works that he did not actually direct, his contribution to gay cinema is incalculable.


Ehrenstein, David. Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Maupin, Armistead. "Gus Van Sant." Interview Magazine (November 29, 2008):

Van Sant, Gus, "The Hollywood Way." Projections 3. John Boorman and Walter Donohue, eds. London: Faber & Faber, 1994.

_____. Pink. New York: Doubleday, 1997.


    Citation Information
    Author: Ehrenstein, David  
    Entry Title: Van Sant, Gus  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 9, 2009  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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