I Love You Phillip Morris
Review by Ray Hill
It is always intriguing to peek into someone else’s culture. Steve McVicker’s book I Love You Phillip Morris, and Jim Carrey’s movie from that material will intrigue you. Often, it is better to read the book before seeing the movie, but in this case both are equally entertaining, so it doesn’t matter. The adjustments made in the material to accommodate Carrey’s larger-than-life portrayal of the main character, Steven Russell, only adds garnish to an already spicy dish.
In a large sense, movies are almost never the same as the books or plays they come from. I remember seeing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Tennessee Williams in a small theater in New Orleans, then seeing it again after it had been altered to satisfy the celebrity of Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Burl Ives on the large screen. Not the same story.
Those of you who have not been lucky enough to learn about the life of a crook on the lam or in prison are in for a rare treat. This opportunity allows you to experience all of those joys while sitting in the comfort of air conditioning, with popcorn no less. Those of us who have been there can enjoy a modest flashback to fond memories in equal comfort.
Typical of his era, Steven Russell is a gay man living a straight life as a cop, businessman, husband, father, whatever, with a parallel life catching tricks and making the best of the circumstances. The risks are what make his life exciting. Having an exciting life can become addictive, and so it does for Steven Russell. The excitement spills over from his sex life to his business dealings, and therein lays the nucleus of intrigue for McVicker’s story.
Mercy, it was almost autobiographical for me to read and watch Russell “keep up” an expensive gay lifestyle by a variety of illegal dealings to support the necessary luxuries. Been there, done that—paid the price, too. He did it as a con man, while I was a commercial burglar, but the high on adrenalin was all the same, as was the ultimate payback. The very sound of that first prison door slamming behind you will echo through your life like a report from a cannon.
But that is where Steven and I had some differences in our experiences. We both became manipulative jailhouse politicians flourishing in an atmosphere where eunuchs excel. He fell in love, but I was not interested in men with prison numbers (I had one of those myself), preferring those with portfolios.
The book and the movie are love stories, and the tenderness of that story belies the sharp edges of the mendacity, crime, and punishment that surround the glowing warm hearts of Steven and Phillip (Ewan McGregor). Like real prison, the contradictions abound, but all of that is very familiar to prison life as I experienced it: poor healthcare, bad food, and the attitude and behavior of inmates and guards all ring true, but are not highlighted in either the book or the movie. The story is about Steven and Phillip.
The way AIDS is handled in the story is both sensitive and authentic. A previous lover of Steven’s is depicted on his deathbed admonishing his flawed companion to find love with abandon. Even that is ultimately manipulated by Steven.
Jean Genet once said that he was going to give himself over to a life of crime and become whatever that makes of him. He did, and it took a worldwide effort of the literary giants of that era to get him out of prison. My copy of I Love You Phillip Morris is next to Genet’s biography on my bookshelf.
I do not want to give away too much in this review for fear you might not help Steve McVicker earn his commission on the sale of the ticket.
Ray Hill is a prison and gay rights activist, host of The Prison Show on KPFT.
Steve McVicker was news director at KPFT when Hill was general manager in 1980 and1981.