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Van Sant, Gus (b. 1952)  
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One of the most idiosyncratic talents to have emerged from the independent cinema over the past decade and a half, Gus Van Sant is matter-of-fact about his sexual orientation. More significantly, in his work he represents homosexuality matter-of-factly.

Back when Hollywood was still tip-toeing around the subject of homosexuality, Van Sant's low-budget feature Mala Noche (1985) burst onto the emerging gay and lesbian film festival scene with disarming frankness.

Based on the then unpublished writings of Portland, Oregon poet Walt Curtis, the film told of the unrequited love of a skid row liquor store clerk (Tim Streeter) for a Mexican street hustler (Doug Coyote) and his more sexually available hustler pal (Ray Monge). Shot in 16mm black and white, it evidenced a talent of remarkable assurance, as well as bravery.

Van Sant's confidence and courage have stood him in good stead in a career that has encompassed everything from films with high-profile superstars such as Sean Connery to music videos for groups such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Hanson, to a thoroughly bizarre shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic film Psycho (1998), to such intensely personal short works as the ineffable Five Naked Boys with a Gun (1992).

Born in Louisville, Kentucky on July 24, 1952, into a decidedly "mainstream," business-oriented family (his father is responsible for the classic "Mac" raincoat), Van Sant is the perfect example of the American upper-middle-class "black sheep." As a child he evinced interest in artistic pursuits of all kinds and made a number of autobiographical super-8 films.

At the Rhode Island School of Design, which he entered in 1970, Van Sant first fell in love with painting. But then he loved poetry and literature too, particularly the works of the blackest of all "black sheep," William Burroughs, who later became a friend and collaborator. There he was also introduced to the work of such avant-garde filmmakers as Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas.

Making Portland his home, Van Sant became part of its art and music scene, performing with a band called "Destroy All Blondes." Then he worked for some time in television. His adventures in television--particularly as they relate to the disadvantages of sleeping with your boss--are covered in his wry, self-starred short Five Ways to Kill Yourself (1987).

Van Sant's penchant for making experimental shorts--My New Friend (1988) and Ken Death Gets Out of Jail (1987) being the most remarkable of them--even after his career entered the "mainstream" speaks volumes about his maverick nature.

Van Sant refuses to be pinned down. Instead of making a gay follow-up to Mala Noche, he turned to Drugstore Cowboy (1989), his extraordinary drama of the life of a "functioning" drug addict (also based on then-unpublished material, a novel by James Fogle). The gritty but tender film revitalized the careers of Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch, while also introducing Heather Graham and James Le Gros.

But following that success, instead of continuing in a more heterosexual direction, he went on to make his gayest film to date, My Own Private Idaho (1991). Casting Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as Portland street hustlers, it mixed Pasolini-style neo-realism with a bizarre restaging of Shakespeare's Henry IV.

Idaho climaxes with one of the most memorable scenes in modern gay cinema, a campside confession of love by one of the hustler heroes for the other. Interestingly, this scene was conceived not by Van Sant, but by his star, River Phoenix. It is a hallmark of Van Sant's directorial style that he creates an atmosphere that encourages such collaboration.

Still, there is such a thing as being too loose, as Van Sant learned the hard way with his adaptation of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994). Lacking the dramatic coherence of Drugstore Cowboy or the playful spontaneity of My Own Private Idaho, Cowgirls simply never comes alive on the screen.

Van Sant lined up a more focused project for his next venture, To Die For (1995). This black comedy about a would-be news journalist (Nicole Kidman) who will not let a loving husband (Matt Dillon) stand in the way of her career was scripted by veteran writer/actor Buck Henry. It also gave Joaquin Phoenix (the former child actor Leaf Phoenix) his first important adult role.

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Gus Van Sant at a screening of Paranoid Park in December, 2007. Photograph by Mai Li.
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