culturefront (US), February 2000
Keanu Reeves As Dionysus Reborn
by Thomas Cripps
In 1994 the movie Speed catapulted Keanu Reeves into superstardom, and went on to collect nearly $300 million in box office receipts worldwide. Speed was a rebirth of sorts for Reeves, who until then was best known for his portrayal of the affable (if obtuse) Ted Logan in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1991). The theme of rebirth throughout Reeves’ career is a cornerstone of my theory that Reeves is indeed Dionysus reincarnate.
My hypothesis may be a hard pill to swallow for those who believe Reeves wasn’t acting when he played Ted Logan, but several parallels reveal Reeves’ true nature as the renascent god of fertility and wine. For the sake of brevity, I will only touch on three of these: the aforementioned theme of rebirth; the devotion of Dionysus’ and Reeves’ worshippers; and the androgynous allure of these two men.
Like the vine with which he is associated, Dionysus dies with the coming of winter and is reborn with the arrival of spring. Keanu Reeves’ career, likewise, has found new life during the warmer seasons, first with the 1994 summer blockbuster Speed and then in spring of 1999 with the sci-fi thriller The Matrix. As an infant, Dionysus was torn apart by the jealous Hera, and the modern incarnation has repeatedly been rent by critics for his performances in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995), only to redeem himself with the successes of Speed and The Matrix.
Some of Reeves’ movies deal explicitly with the idea of rebirth or reincarnation. In Little Buddha (1994), for instance, a character named Lama Norbu comes to Seattle in search of the reincarnation of his dead teacher, Lama Dorje. His search leads him to three children: young Jesse Conrad; Raju, a boy from Katmandu; and an Indian girl. Together they journey to Bhutan, where the children must undergo a test to prove which of them is the true reincarnation. Reeves plays the Buddha and re-enacts the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment. This role as a near-deity hints broadly at Reeves’ former life as a citizen of Mt. Olympus and teasingly challenges the audience to discover his true nature.
Reeves offers yet another clue in The Matrix. There is a scene in which his character escapes from the illusion that he has misperceived as the true world. He eventually emerges from a womb-like pod, “reborn” into the real world. The character then sheds his human identity for that of “Neo,” the savior of the world. Dionysus (or Bacchus, as he was often called) was revered in his time as a great friend to mankind, becoming the center of a belief in immortality. As Plutarch explained in a letter to his grieving wife, just after the death of their daughter in 80 a.d., “You have heard ... that the soul once departed from the body vanishes and feels nothing, [but] I know that you give no belief to such assertions because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries of Bacchus.”
Thebes’ favorite son was certainly beautiful. It is said that he had long, dark hair and dusky eyes. He was intoxicating enough to inspire a group of mad women to follow him. They were called the Maenads, and unlike the disciples of the other gods, these women had no temple. They worshipped Dionysus in the wilderness, under the open sky.
His modern incarnation, Reeves, is not without physical charms, sharing the same swarthy features as the god of the vine. His devotees are just as passionate about him as the Maenads ever were about Dionysus, though, thankfully, they express their adoration for Reeves without tearing wild creatures to pieces and devouring their bloody flesh. Reeves’ followers spread news about him through a set of linked pages on the internet that feature him in all his glory. I am reluctant to describe these followers as mad, despite their displays of affection for someone they do not know. Rather, I believe they can see in Reeves something to which the rest of the world has turned a blind eye: his divinity.
The Androgynous Appeal
Gynnis, translated as “the womanish,” and Arsenothelys, translated as “the man-womanly,” are just two of Dionysus’ nicknames. He was often described as a bisexual, or in some milder passages as effeminate. During his childhood, Queen Ino dressed him in girl’s clothing to hide him from Hera, as per Zeus’ orders to Hermes. He is said to have continued to vacillate between dressing as a man or a woman, depending on his mood, and some scholars believe that Dionysus was unable to differentiate between his feminine and masculine aspects.
It would be difficult for Reeves to play an American action hero convincingly were he to behave as Dionysus did in ancient times, so his image is decidedly more masculine. However, in recent years there have been questions about his sexuality. After Speed, he was rumored to be married to music mogul David Geffen. Then there was his reported affair with a male ballet dancer while he was playing Hamlet in Winnipeg, Canada. On the other hand, he’s also alleged to have had many affairs with prominent women, including a short-lived fling with Sharon Stone. Circa 1996, Reeves was purportedly engaged to British wild child Amanda de Cadenet. Reeves’ latest romantic affair has been with a woman not previously in the public eye, and has also brought him into a new arena: fatherhood. Perhaps his love life plays on the imagination of the American public much as Dionysus’ loves so fascinated the Greeks — or even more, because Reeves is so determined to keep his affairs private.
Dionysus continues to speak to us across time, and if he chooses to do so with a fading surfer-dude accent, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen. As Robert B. Palmer writes in his introduction to Walter F. Otto’s classic study Dionysus: Myth and Cult, “Let no man arrogate to himself the right to say that a god has died until the echo which remains after the departure of the last of his worshippers has been dispelled.”