GUS Van Sant: An Unauthorized Biographyby James Robert Parish
Enigmatic, retiring, and openly gay, Gus Van Sant is one of the best-known independent filmmakers. An active and honored director for two decades, noted for his rapport with actors, Van Sant nevertheless remains aloof from Hollywood, preferring to live and write in Portland, OR. Extensively researched and based on interviews with the director, Gus Van Sant examines
Enigmatic, retiring, and openly gay, Gus Van Sant is one of the best-known independent filmmakers. An active and honored director for two decades, noted for his rapport with actors, Van Sant nevertheless remains aloof from Hollywood, preferring to live and write in Portland, OR. Extensively researched and based on interviews with the director, Gus Van Sant examines his career from the inauspicious debut Mala Noche to the haunting Drugstore Cowboy; from the angst-ridden My Own Private Idaho and the mainstream black comedy To Die For to the Oscar-nominated Good Will Hunting and the high-profile Finding Forrester. Van Sant remains committed to exploring themes of the outsider and presenting an idiosyncratic vision in an unobtrusive but compelling style. Equally important, under Van Sant's guidance many actors (Matt Dillon, River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, Nicole Kidman, Matt Damon, and acclaimed newcomer Robert Brown, whom Van Sant discovered) have done their best work. The first full-length biography of the Oscar nominated director, author Parish has interviewed Van Sant exclusively for this book.
- Da Capo Press
- Publication date:
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Read an Excerpt
Families are interesting stuff. The dynamics
of whatever kind of family you have
is an orientation that you apply to the
outside world. Maybe it's just the most
interesting thing that I know.
Gus Van Sant, 1993
IN MID-1952 THE UNITED STATES was going through many changes. On July 2, in Palmdale, California, the F-94C Starfire, a new supersonic jet plane, made its first successful test flight. On the sixth, in Hollywood, the first TV performer-producer contract was signed by the Screen Actors Guild. July 12 saw General Dwight D. Eisenhower winning the Republican nomination for president, beating out his opponent Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, on the first ballot. (The Republicans also chose Richard M. Nixon, the California senator, to be Eisenhower's running mate as vice president.) On the seventeenth of the month, in Helsinki, Finland, Nationalist China withdrew from the Olympic games in protest over efforts to admit Peking to the international competition. The next day, Marilyn Monroe's latest movie, Don't Bother to Knock, debuted, while on July 24, Gary Cooper's Western, High Noon, bowed to rave reviews.
Meanwhile, in northern Kentucky, in Louisvillethe bluegrass state's largest metropolistwenty-five-year-old Gus Greene Van Sant and his wife, Betty Beasley (Seay) Van Sant, were preparing to become first-time parents. Each of the couple had grown up in the smallish town of Mayfield, Kentucky (located insouthwestern Kentucky, twenty-one miles south of Paducah and sixteen miles north of the Tennessee border), about 228 miles from Louisville. After a stint in the navy at age seventeen during World War II, Gus had matriculated at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, on a football scholarship, but left in his junior year to fill in temporarily for a salesman at the Merit Clothing Company where his father and grandfather had worked. (He never returned to the campus classrooms.) Meanwhile Betty, whose parents owned a men's clothing store in Mayfield, had attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington. The sweethearts, who were Episcopalian, married on February 12, 1950, in Mayfield at the stately home of Betty's sister. The local Methodist minister, Dr. Roy Williams, performed the marriage service for the assemblage of seventy relatives and friends.
(By this point Gus's mother Dorothy was a widowher husband, Lewis Loving Van Sant, had died in 1946 at age forty-three. A few years thereafter Dorothy had moved to Granville, Ohio, to be near her daughter, Joanne, who resided in Westerville. The latter had joined the faculty at Otterbein College, eventually rising to the post of Vice President for Student Affairs. Dorothy Van Sant spent a few years in Granville as housemother for the local chapter of the Chi Omega Sorority House. In 1962 she moved to Westerville to live with daughter Joanne.)
Gus became a full-time traveling salesman in 1950 for Merit Clothing, which specialized in men's pants. Betty became an elementary school teacher, instructing a second-grade class. When the Van Sants moved from Mayfield to Louisvillewhere Gus's grandfather had once livedthey took an apartment (#I-6) at the Greentree Manor because Betty's college roommate was then residing there. On July 24, 1952, Gus Van Sant Jr. was born at the Norton Infirmary on the outskirts of Louisville. (Born a Leo, the baby shared the same birthday, if not birth year, with such future celebrities as actresses Jennifer Lopez, Lynda Carter, Anna Paquin, comedians Michael Richards and Ruth Buzzi, country singer Pam Tillis, film director Peter Yates, and athlete Kadeem Hardison.)
As a traveling salesperson, Mr. Van Sant was on the road for large chunks of time during the spring/summer and fall/winter apparel seasons, drumming up orders for the Merit Clothing Company. As such he was away from home a good of deal of time, leaving the care of their newborn son to his wife, Dorothy, and to assorted nearby relatives. When young Gus (whom the family called "Van") was hardly a year old, ambitious Gus Sr. received a new sales territory from Merit Clothing. As a result, Gus, Betty, and Van relocated to Fort Collins, Colorado, in north central Colorado, home of the state university. In his capacity as a salesman, Gus Sr. continued his seasonal traveling, covering his expansive sales territory for the firm.
In 1953, the Van Sants moved yet againthis time south to much larger Denver, Colorado, some sixty-six miles away. Hoping to stay put for a time, and having saved some money, the Van Sants bought a tract house in the University Hills area. The homes in this new development were all approximately at 1,056 square feet, some with garages, others without. The Van Sants took title to a property at 3310 South Ivy Way. To support his family, Gus covered a sizeable five-state territory for Merit Clothing, responsible for generating sales orders in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Often Van Sant would travel fifteen hundred miles in a single week of travel (always trying to be home on weekends). Each trek required loading up the car with a rack in the backseat for the eight or twelve different suit styles along with nine hundred to one thousand clothing swatches. Amazingly, as Mr. Van Sant recalled for this author, rarely were any of the myriad samples ever stolen while he was on his road trips.
Looking back to this period over four decades later, the younger Van Sant has reminisced, "One of my earliest memories is of my dad and me walking across the street in front of our house in Colorado. He had whisky in a glass with ice cubes, and I tasted it. He told me I wouldn't like it, and I didn't."
The year 1956 saw yet new changes in the Van Sant household. On June 12, Betty Van Sant gave birth at the General Rose Hospital in Denver to a daughter whom the couple named Malinda Anne. (She later gained the nickname "Sissy.") With the expansion of his family, Gus Sr. was anxious to cut back on the grueling seasonal traveling. When Merit Clothing did not make a responsive offer, Gus accepted a sales position with McGregor-Doniger, Inc. Not only was Van Sant joining a more prestigious firmthe sports clothing king of Americabut his new employers required only that he trek through one state (Colorado) for his sales territory. Within less than three years, Van Sant, the forceful sales professional, was promoted to regional manager for McGregor-Doniger. The family gave up their Denver address and moved to suburban Mount Prospect (with Gus Sr. commuting by train into Denver). Their new home was at 222 South Albert Street. By now Van had begun elementary school and had joined the Cub Scouts. (Because of the family's later moves, Van lost interest in scouting and never became a Boy Scout.)
In 1961, there were two deaths in the McGregor-Doniger hierarchy. One was Harry Doniger who, along with his brother Bill, controlled the firm. The other passing was that of Oz Hand, the corporation's head of marketing and Gus Sr.'s mentor. In the firm's transition, Bill Doniger asked Van Sant to become western regional manager for McGregor. While the company's main office in that territory was in Los Angeles, the Van Sants chose to live in the San Francisco area. Betty Van Sant had a cousin who resided in pricey Atherton (twenty-eight miles south on the peninsula from San Francisco and just north of Palo Alto), located in what would become the Silicon Valley. The Van Sants lucked out. They found a seller, anxious to make a sale. They purchased a home for $56,000 at 67 Melanie Lane that had cost the owner $86,000 to build. The residence was in the foothills of town and from their house they could see the San Francisco skyline.
While pert and vivacious Betty Van Sant remained a homemaker taking care of her two young offspring, Gus oversaw the firm's eleven western states and made frequent business trips throughout the huge territory. So successful was he that after six months the firm promoted him yet againthis time to vice president of sales for the entire company. As such, he was to be based at the corporation's home office in New York City at 666 Fifth Avenue at Fifty-second Street. After a hasty family council, it was decided that Gus Sr. would immediately relocate to the East Coast, while the rest of the household would remain in Atherton until mid- 1962 so that nine-year-old Van would not be pulled out of school partway through the academic year.
In June 1962, Van, who had just completed the fourth grade, and Malinda, who had been in kindergarten, had to say good-bye to their friends as Betty Van Sant moved her household across country. Fortuitously one of Gus Sr.'s business friends needed to relocate to northern California. So a deal was worked out whereby the pal would take the Van Sants' home in Atherton and the Van Sants would move to Darien, Connecticutabout forty-three miles northeast of New York City along the Connecticut coast.
By mid- 1962 the Van Sants had unpacked at their new residencethis time at 50 Knollwood Lane in Darien. Located on the New England shoreline five miles north of Stamford, between Stamford and NorwalkDarien was a bastion of the old, well-heeled part of Connecticut. One of the famous bedroom communities along the New Haven, Hartford, and Connecticut Railroad's pathway between Boston, New Haven, and New York City, Darien was a conservative stronghold, full of well-to-do, Caucasian, Protestant citizens, many of whose blue-blood family trees reached back to American colonial days. (Darien was part of the verdant turf made [in]famous in the 1940s by Laura Z. Hobson's book Gentleman's Agreement and the subsequent movie as being, along with New Canaan and other nearby communities, a stronghold of anti-Semitism.) While the Van Sants may have been southerners by birth, they fit in easily within the upscale community.
As for Van, now ten years old, it was not such a simple transition. This was already his sixth home address in different parts of the country since he had been born. The youngster was now participating in his third school system and the change was far harder for him than for his four-year-younger sister. He had to abandon, yet again, a set of friends made at school and his then current neighborhood.
One of the constants in all these years of continuous relocation was Betty's annual summer visit to her parents in Mayfield, Kentucky. She took Gus Jr. and Malinda with her and these treks became an important event in the children's life. The yearly stays at his grandparents was especially meaningful to Gus Jr.
With all the moving about the country (he would later term the family of his childhood as "corporate gypsies") and a frequently absent father figure, Van learned at a very early age to be self-reliant. (His mother Betty would later tell people, "Van's just always been independent.") He was also a budding nonconformist. As he has detailed, "In 1962, if you could find the remotest thing that was irreverent, it was appealing. I remember actively engaging in that kind of pursuit as a 10-year-old. If somebody said, 'You can't wear this,' you'd wear it. [Andy] Warhol, who was 30 then, was doing the same thing. They put a banner that said 'Pop Art,' and people said, 'What's that?' and they said, 'It's our movement.' And people said, 'That's not a movement,' and they said, 'Yes it is.' It was in the air in those days. Any causea band or a motorcycle gang, it didn't matter. You just won if you joined whatever."
Years later, when asked to describe his formative years (in relation to the themes of his first feature film projects), Van told the Advocate's Robert Hofler: "I had a family that moved around a lot in the United States, and I was always amassing a new group of friends whenever we moved. We would stay in a place for only a year or two.... Each city had its own group of friends. In my making a new group of friends over and over again, these themes [i.e., dispossessed family and a searching for home and an embracing of a pseudo family] became ingrained. For whatever reason, if it's just by chance, I'm drawn to these stories [in my moviemaking]." To another publication, Van Sant explained that the constant moving in his childhood to what he detailed as "all very suburban, very similar places" made it easy for him to adapt to different places, but not "necessarily to blend." Gus Jr. also noted, "I've always been the quirky 'infamous' member of the family."
On yet another occasion, in 1992, young actor River Phoenix was interviewing Gus Van Sant Jr. for a magazine piece about the filmmaker's career and their recent joint movie My Own Private Idaho (1991). The director allowed, regarding the film and its theme of the central character searching for his lost family and the homestead of his youth, that "I have obsessed with my family's house and where we lived when I was around six, which was in Colorado. Because I guess that's where I first lived, you know? That's my concept of home. Then we moved away, and I probably didn't like moving away. So then the house smashing in the road is like my destruction of the house that I miss. But when I painted the paintings [which sometimes featured scenes of a crashing house], I never thought, 'Oh, I missed my childhood, and now I'm showing how that childhood has been smashed in 10 million bits'though I can interpret them that way and then be sort of surprised."
When questioned in the year 2000 about the dynamics of his family when he was a youngster, Van Sant Jr. acknowledged, "I think we were probably kind of WASPy." When the interviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle asked if this implied that the Van Sants were Updike-ian (in reference to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike who often wrote about the uptight aristocratic set of New England), the new-generation Van Sant answered, "Yes, I would say. [We were] Not exactly close." The journalist prodded further, "'Updike-ian' conjures a distance and a formality and people covering up a lot of misgivings and secrets." To this, the filmmaker responded, "It could have been like that."
When the Van Sants moved to Darien, the parents participated in forming a new local Episcopal church. It was named St. Paul's and was a spin-off of a large Episcopal church in town named St. Luke's. It would be at St. Paul's that Gus Jr. was confirmed in 1963.
Another family activity was attending the Woodway Country Club in Darien. While daughter Malinda shared her mother's affinity for tennis, Gus Jr. learned to play golf, the sport his father so enjoyed. As Gus Sr. told this author about his son: "He was never very committed to the sport, though he had promise. Fortunately, for me, he learned to play well enough so that we could enter the father/son tournaments. It has been a method of bonding that has transcended the years. We have played golf whenever we are together and can find the time or place to do so."
* * *
AS his family was considered part of the affluent set, Van, like most of the scions of prosperous Darien families, attended the town's fine public school system. (He became a student at the Royle School, then moved on to Middlesex Junior High.) At home, Gus Jr., born with a creative bent, had already developed an interest in art and had begun doing paintings (following in the path of his mom who had been encouraged in the fine arts by her own mother when Betty was a child). The quiet, shy youth soon displayed a proficiency for this craft, found approval from his parents, and the avocation absorbed a good deal of his spare time. At age thirteen, the boy would win the "best-of-show" in a local art competition. Thinking back on his budding display of talent, Van Sant Jr. remembered, "The paintings were really good, but they always had a certain strangeness about them. When I was 14, there was a painting I made ... there were three policemen done in brown, and they were just standing there. It was done with tempera and ripped paper. It was real arty and strange. My parents bought it from the art show and hung it in their dining room."
* * *
IN 1966, four years after they had relocated to Connecticut, Mr. Van Sant's career in the sportswear industryand at McGregor-Doniger, in particularprospered even further. The family moved again, but this time they remained in not only the same state, but also within the same city. They transferred to a more prestigious homean impressive house situated at 108 Inwood Road in Darien. At the new address, Gus Jr. gained a greater degree of privacy. He was allowed to take over the huge room over the garage, which already had a built-in bathroom. The boy transformed his new domain into his private studio/living quarters.
It was while Van was in his junior high years at the Darien public school system that the teenager got put to bed for three months with what was then termed rheumatic fever (a complication resulting from a streptococcal infection usually affecting children and which is often manifested by fever, arthritis, chorea, and heart problems). On the other hand, according to Van Sant Sr., it was more likely rheumatoid arthritis, a usually chronic disease characterized by inflammation and progressive deformity of the joints. Per the senior Van Sant, Gus Jr. matched up with eight of the ten criteria of rheumatoid arthritis.
So that their son would not fall seriously behind in his schoolwork, the Van Sants arranged with the school system for teachers not only to send over the boy's course studies, but for their boy to have private tutoring sessions at home.
* * *
THE excellence of the Darien public school system was reflected by the general fineness of its instructors. According to Van Sant Jr., "When I was about twelve years old, I had some very influential teachers in my school in Connecticut. Painting was my original interest. I had a great art teacher [named Robert Levine]." As the moviemaker recounted over thirty years later in a lengthy interview with Graham Fuller, "There was a whole group of students who religiously took his art class. We all had to take the class, but a bunch of us worked after school because we were entertained by him and he encouraged people. He, I think, was my inspiration in the early days."
Van Sant Jr. further recollected, "I actually remember him creating paintings in class, and then, on my own, I would emulate his style of painting, which was sort of the New York advertising world illustration style, design- or magazine-oriented as opposed to fine art. There was another, famous Robert Levine who did illustrationsI remember him doing one for Aqueduct Racewaywhose style was actually quite a bit like my teacher Robert Levine's style. It was the kind of stuff that was similar to what Warhol did in the fifties, except that it was in the sixties. I remember it being acrylic mixed in with tissue paper and then paint and gold leaf. I think of it as this kind of Greenwich Village, gay thing, because my teacher was an out gay teacher in 1963, which was pretty unusual for this very WASPy area where I lived in Darien, Connecticut. So, he was an early influence. Also we were doing a lot of silk-screening, just as [Andy] Warhol was at that time, unbeknownst to me because I didn't know who Warhol was. We silk-screened posters and occasionally we would do artistic, multilayered silkscreens that were more like works of art."
As for the fact that his art teacher had an alternative lifestyle, Van Sant Jr. would assess later: "His whole kind of aesthetic was he was quite open. It was the early '60s and a lot of the boys in the school sort of had a fan club, they vied for his attention. And he was sort of promiscuous in his openness, but he also never violated the trust. It would have been pretty scandalousthe kids were 12 [to] 14 or whatever.... He just knew where he was, and wasn't confused by being attracted to his male students. It was just part of the whole thing. It had nothing to do with trying to get in their pants or anything like that, which is I think part of the attraction the boys had. They could be appreciated but didn't really know why. I don't think most of the kids really knew what being gay was, but sometimes he would explain it. He was a great artist, toohe was very passionate about the arts."
During these impressionable years, Van was also impacted by another instructorhis ninth-grade English instructor, David Soan: "He was a progressive writing teacher who had written this  book called Stop, Look and Write. It was a book of photographs, and the point was to look at a photograph and then write about what might be happening in it. It was kind of [Marshall] McLuhan-esque, and I think David recommended McLuhan in his classpretty unusual readings for fourteen-year-olds. He also showed us Citizen Kane and Canadian Film Board films that were definitely influenced by McLuhan, because they were an abstract barrage of voices and media images that didn't necessarily make sense. I remember writing a visual piece in David's classlike an illustrated novel, but short, ten pages or so. I still have that." For Van Sant Jr. having a teacher such as Soan was "a major influence on me. I don't know what would have happened had Mr. Soan not been there and he hadn't shown that film to me. Pretty amazing stuff for a public school."
It was Soan who encouraged his teenaged charges to make 8mm movies in class and to try out amateur filmmaking at home. Van did so with his family's Kodak camera. In these early efforts, the boy's approach to moviemaking was more from the point of view of a painter. Later Gus Jr. pooled his resources with classmates John Howell and Paul Ryan and they used a Super 8 camera to shoot an animated film that lasted, perhaps, forty seconds. As the youthful filmmaker later described this effort: "It was called Fun with a Blood Root. It was about a little flower that grows up and tickles a guy under his chin and then he bites the flower off. And then the camera sort of widens up and it shows that the man is also a flower."
Excerpted from GUS VAN SANT by james robert parish. Copyright © 2001 by James Robert Parish. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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