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The Movie that Made Tom Cruise ‘Tom Cruise’
‘Risky Business’ forty years later.
I WAS OBSESSED WITH RISKY BUSINESS in the summer of 1983; I even bought a pair of Ray-Bans after my third viewing. Rewatching it forty years later, however, I’m struck by what a clever, dark, strange, and quietly subversive movie it is, a cut above other sex comedies of that era. And I found it fascinating to revisit Tom Cruise at the beginning of his career: to see the intimations of his meteoric rise to superstar status, yes, but also to see him acting a role I’m not sure he’d sign up for now.
Cruise plays Joel Goodsen, a regular, all-American high school senior from a wealthy Chicago suburb. He is neither a standout student nor a rebellious misfit. He is the dutiful, only son to his chilly and exacting parents. They expect him to excel, matriculate at an Ivy (preferably Princeton, where Joel’s dad is an alumnus), get a job in finance, marry an acceptable woman, and eventually become exactly like them. His life is mapped out for him.
My favorite Tom Cruise performances have been in roles where he had directors whom he admired and submitted to—auteurs like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Cameron Crowe, and Paul Thomas Anderson. With these directors, he relaxed his tight grip on his image and allowed them to take him on a dark journey of self-discovery. As wonderfully entertaining and technically impressive as Tom Cruise’s action-adventure movies are, those parts aren’t exactly complex character studies. Risky Business was Cruise’s first starring role in that brief period before he became “Tom Cruise.” And Paul Brickman, its writer and director, pushed him into tricky emotional territory. He brings out both Cruise’s vulnerability and maybe unearths a bit of his innate insanity. He pushes him to lose control. He gets Tom Cruise to have sex on a train and lip sync and dance with abandon in his tighty-whities, for God’s sake. (And manically bounce up and down on his parents’ overstuffed couch, foreshadowing his meltdown on Oprah twenty-two years later.)
Cruise plays Joel as a distinctly average kid. He is good-looking, but has no idea how to take advantage of it. He has recurring dreams where potential sexual encounters with imaginary girls are thwarted by missed tests, parental disappointment, and public embarrassment. He joins the school’s Future Enterprisers club to please his father and to look good on paper for college applications even though he struggles to find a product he has any passion for and can market successfully. He has a goofy laugh, he walks stiffly, and awkwardly stuffs his hands in his pockets. Joel isn’t comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t have a clue who he is or who he wants to be.
The current, carefully curated Tom Cruise would never take on a movie whose most quoted line is, “Sometimes you gotta say, ‘What the fuck?’” Watching Risky Business back when I was a teenager, I was thrilled by its sensuality. However, now I realize it is less about sex and more about the seductive, dark allure of capitalism, made flesh in the form of Lana (a perfectly calibrated and mysterious Rebecca De Mornay), a call girl Joel hires for the night. Lana deliberately makes herself into a symbol. We don’t know her last name, we barely know a thing about her private life, which is the way she wants to keep it. She wakes Joel up from a deep sleep and they have sex in the middle of a sudden windstorm. Is she real or just another one of his fantasies? As Jackie, the transgender prostitute Joel’s friend originally hired for him says of Lana, “It’s what you want. It’s what every boy off the Lake wants.” She looks like the girl next door, if the girl next door were a sex doll.
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But she’s also a brilliant businessperson. Lana convinces Joel to turn his parents’ house into a one-night brothel servicing the other sad, little rich boys from Glencoe. Out of financial desperation, Joel agrees, but he takes to the part of a pimp with a heart of gold like a duck to the waters of Lake Michigan. He’s actually great at it. Lana has unearthed the entrepreneurial spirit he’d been missing in the classroom. In one weekend, Joel metamorphizes from a law-abiding, “good” son into a stone-cold movie star, sunglasses covering his eyes and thousands of dollars in his pocket.
Risky Business dabbles in the tropes of the classic 1980s teenage sex comedy, but it is far more complex, nuanced, and slippery in its morals and in its tone. It has more in common with The Graduate than Porky’s. Most of the movie takes place at night and the cinematography reflects that darkness. The haunting soundtrack by Tangerine Dream adds a vaguely ominous, moody undercurrent. When Joel is waiting for Jackie and then Lana to arrive at his house, Brickman amps up the tension so high, we almost feel like we’re watching a horror movie. None of Joel’s buddies is particularly appealing or good friends to him. And his parents are rigid and unloving. His mom seems to care more about her Steuben glass egg than her son. Joel is very much on his own until Lana comes into his life.
Unlike the female roles in most 1980s comedies, Lana is never a passive figure there to serve the male lead. She may not have the advantages and education Joel has, but she’s miles ahead of him in every respect except wealth. When Joel unintentionally condescends toward her in an effort to get to know her better, Lana lets him know he’s a hypocrite for judging her and what she does to survive when, after all, he’s benefiting from it and lives off his parents’ largesse. And when it suits her, Lana lets Joel believe he’s her knight in shining armor, but she is always running the show. And even though she robs him blind, Joel ends up respecting Lana’s hustle and drive. She’s made “Sometimes you gotta say, ‘What the fuck?’” come to life for him.
Joel gets into Princeton not because of his grades or his legacy advantages, but because the admissions officer has had the time of his life at Lana and Joel’s pop-up brothel. While other students at the Future Enterprisers Club are presenting their paper towel holders and decorative planters that earned them $800 in sales, Lana has shown Joel how to make $8,000 in one night ($25,000 in 2023 dollars). In the penultimate scene, Lana and Joel have dinner together in a tony restaurant downtown, entirely populated—except for them—by rich, old, white men. When Joel asks her if what they had was just a setup, she tells him no, and then asks, “You don’t trust me, do you?” He doesn’t answer.
The last scene is them walking in the dark by the lake. Lana is dressed in a prim, white dress with a bow tied around her neck. Except she’s braless and her breasts are clearly visible under the dress. Joel doesn’t care. He not only accepts her, he revels in her daring. No judgments this time. They are on equal footing. She has given him confidence and purpose in a way his sheltered life at home and at school never could have accomplished. Will their romance continue? We don’t know, but for right now they both have profited from their pragmatic and symbiotic relationship. What an elegantly cynical ending.