The real Phillip Morris is a free man — but still smarting from how a bigoted Texas justice system railroaded him

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor [email protected]

BOYS BEHIND BARS   Ewan McGregor plays Phillip Morris, the real-life victim of an obsessive con man (played by Jim Carrey). The actual Morris loves the movie — even if his life didn’t seem so funny at the time.

4.5 stars

Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor.
Rated R. 100 mins.
Now playing at Angelika Film
Center Mockingbird Station.


An early review for the new queer romantic comedy I Love You, Phillip Morris couldn’t be more positive: “I absolutely love the movie,” gushes the review. “I think it’s wonderfully done. Very entertaining. It makes you laugh and cry and has everything. I had to separate myself from living it. I looked at it as if I wasn’t part of it.”

Yes, there really is a Phillip Morris from the title, a pixie-like gentleman with a lazy Southern drawl as sweet and sticky on the ears as molasses. “No one really knows the extent of what I went through and what Steven Russell put me through until you see it on the screen. A friend of mine [saw it] and hugged me with tears running down his face. ‘I never knew!’ he said. I said, ‘If you only knew what really happened you wouldn’t have been able to stop crying.’”

I Love You has endured a tortured journey from indie darling of Sundance in 2009 to not-with-a-10-foot-pole distribution hell. A Jim Carrey comedy should be a sure bet. But set in prison — and with a gay theme that the filmmakers don’t bat an eyelash in portraying? Adding to the discomfort factor: It’s true.

Well, sort of. Morris himself — he now lives in Arkansas, 14 years after meeting con man Steven Russell (Carrey’s role) in a Texas jail — says a lot of what happens in the film did not happen in real life. Yes, Russell sweet-talked his way into prison posing as Morris’ lawyer. Yes, Russell cheated people and businesses with the callow greed of a cat in a tunafish factory. Yes, Morris (played in the film by Ewan McGregor) was naïve and believed the lies he was told by a man he thought loved him, but whom he now perceives a merely obsessed with sociopathic tendencies. But much of it is, let’s say, “creative license.”

“Steve was not as humorous [as Carrey portrays], so I had to dig deep to realize what he did was very serious, but if you think about how he did it, it’s hilarious! I just love they way they did the comedy,” Morris says.

It would be understandable if he weren’t quite so forgiving of the liberties taken with his life story. Morris is still profoundly bitter about his incarceration, and how he felt railroaded by the Harris County D.A.’s office.

“When you’re 5-foot-3 and weigh 100 pounds with blond hair and blue eyes, prison is not a bed of roses,” he says with sudden grimness. “This movie will help shed light on what happened to me and how they screwed me in the state of Texas. It was bad enough I was lied to and used by Steven Russell, but I spend seven years in prison for what I did not do or even know about. Even though I’m not physically in prison, this is still hovering over me.”

Morris met Russell 14 years ago in county lock-up (not prison as portrayed in the movie, but he’s OK with that). They ended up spending eight months together, becoming lovers. And we’re not talking of the prison-bitch kind shown on Oz — it was deep, true, sincere affection, a fairy tale romance in leg irons (even if there were no slow dances and touching prison courtyard farewells — again, in the movie only, but that’s all right).

“I have no anger about the way it was portrayed,” he says.

What he does have anger over is how homophobia played a role, he’s certain, in how he was treated by the system.

Steven Russell forged Morris’ name, set up dummy bank accounts and bilked people out of millions, getting Morris in trouble with Texas law enforcement and landing him in prison for seven years, even as the prosecution knew he was innocent.

“Steve did what he did out of what he called love for me — if I thought for one second he did any of that with malice or intent to hurt me, I would hate the man so much it would tear me apart,” Morris says.

“But the D.A. told me the day of my trial that he knew I was innocent. But they went ahead and [pursued me] just to cover their asses. If I had been a woman — if I had been married to Steve or his girlfriend — they never would have indicted me. But you should have seen how they looked at me: They were determined to make this faggot go to prison. It was the good-ol’-buddy mentality dished out to me.” His bile rises as he recounts the story, still furious more than seven years later.

He felt abused again after Steve McVicker’s article [for the Houston Press] and eventual book portrayed him badly.

“I detest the writer of the book,” he says. “This mentality, the ignorance — that’s this writer. Although he lives in the middle of Montrose, he is one of the most homophobic idiots I’ve ever met. He misquoted me, called me a barfly even though I hate going to bars, called me a gold digger. Just lies. He is a cockroach. And you can quote me.”

The film then, even with its warm-and-fuzzy patina, finally captures the three-dimensionality of Morris. He feels like a real human being again.

“Ewan’s portrayal of me is dead-on. People who know me say they thought that was me up there! Ewan took the time to spend with me to learn my mannerisms and hear my story and the tender side of me. I’m a very sensitive and emotional person and I don’t hide that.”

As for his feelings about Russell, well — spoiler alert! — “We were as close and two human beings could possibly be. We never argued and were very affectionate and we really learned each other. But neither of us has written each other since 2008.”

Maybe one day he’ll resume communication with the man currently serving a life sentence in high security custody. If he does… well, that might make a pretty good movie, too.


The long con

I Love You, Phillip Morris rattled around for nearly two years looking for a release date (and occasionally a distributor), and it’s easy to see why: Despite being a Jim Carrey comedy, it’s one of the gayest bits of cinema this side of the porn industry — and it doesn’t apologize for it. Not one bit. What mainstream audience would want to see a romance with two guys?

The answer should be: All of them — or at least those who enjoy an excellent film, no matter what the orientation of the lovers happens to be.

I Love You is, in many ways, a traditional screwball comedy, owing as much to What’s Up, Doc? as to Brokeback Mountain. Steven Russell (Carrey) lives a normal, straight existence, but once he comes out, lives a lifestyle beyond his means. That entails scams, cons and ballsy ventures that eventually land him in jail where he meets Phillip (Ewan McGregor), a naive Southern boy smitten with the charismatic Russell. They plan a life together out of jail, but Russell’s sociopathic need for money and addiction to risk sets everything on a bad path.

Carrey’s performance is brave, and not because he’s playing gay: Because he throws himself into the head-over-heels love-struck mode so enthusiastically. This is still a Jim Carrey movie, but one loaded with more heart than usual.

It may not be for every taste, but there is a moment where the battle lines are drawn: When Phillip, seeing Steven moved to a new facility, runs through the prison like a starry-eyed heroine from a wartime romance. Some may dismiss it as hokum, but it’s something else really: Classic sentimentality with the twist that two men can be as in love as any hetero couple. If you allow yourself to get lost in it, you’ll buy it all. Rick and Elsa always had Paris; why shouldn’t Steven and Phillip always have Huntsville?

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 10, 2010.