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“Risky Business” at 35: Teen angst in the time of your life

Written by: Valerie Kalfrin, CC2K Staff Writer


Tom Cruise scales the fine line between brave and foolhardy with every can-you-believe-it stunt in the Mission: Impossible franchise, with Mission: Impossible—Fallout netting the 56-year-old some of the best reviews of his career. But he navigates a much finer emotional line in the role that made him a star.

Thirty-five years ago this month, Cruise slid into heartthrob status and spawned a pop-culture moment in the film Risky Business. His improvised groove to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” in briefs, white socks, and a pink button-down shirt made teens swoon and still inspires the dress code at college parties.

It’s a moment of pure joy, but the film itself isn’t a joyride. Risky Business endures as a modern classic because there’s more to it than Cruise dancing in his underwear. It’s a wry comedy and a thoughtful coming-of-age story wrapped up in the guise of a teen sex caper.

Written and directed by Paul Brickman, Risky Business was Cruise’s third film in 1983, after The Outsiders and Losin’ It. He plays Joel Goodson, a high-school senior with a decent GPA and an affluent family on the North Shore of Chicago. He plays poker and smokes with his friends, but he’s a good son, even if his parents tend to throw shade along with encouragement. They’re heading out of town for a week, leaving him alone. “We love you, honey. Just trust your judgment,” they say, but they don’t. In a sequence from Joel’s POV as they head to the airport, Mom asks if he can take his SATs again because she doesn’t think his scores are high enough for the Ivy League. Dad scolds him for cranking up the bass on the stereo and warns him not to drive the Porsche because he’s not on its insurance. Dad also conveniently arranges an interview for that coming Friday night with an admissions person from Princeton.

The Risky Business scene everyone knows isn’t where Tom Cruise Movie Star truly arrives. / Courtesy of Warner Bros.

On Joel’s first night alone, he sits down with rum and Coke and a still-frozen TV dinner he eats like a Popsicle. Then he dances in the living room, sliding along the hardwood floor and singing into a candlestick and fireplace tools while strutting like a rock star. It’s the freest we’ve seen him in the first ten minutes—the freest we suspect he’s ever been.

The film’s score from Tangerine Dream pulses like the thoughts and anxieties in Joel’s head. He doesn’t have a one-track mind exactly, but his every fantasy is interrupted by the worry that he’ll jeopardize his future. He imagines a naked woman in the shower, then loses her in the bathroom mist and finds himself late to the college boards. He thinks about clearing Tinkertoys off a tabletop to make out with a brunette, only to see flashing lights from police cars outside, along with her father and his parents. “Get off the babysitter,” his mother says through a megaphone.

“The dream is always the same,” he says in a voiceover, zoning out with a cigarette behind his Wayfarers. “I’ve just made a terrible mistake. I’ll never get to college. My life is ruined.”

Cruise is eminently relatable, cute but shy and wanting to keep up with his much-savvier friends who, when push comes to shove, aren’t that much smarter; they just talk a better game. They belong to a Future Enterprisers business club, compare notes about the schools to which others have applied, and discuss future salaries. “Doesn’t anyone want to accomplish anything, or just make money?” Joel asks.

Joel takes the Porsche out for a spin, but his pal Miles (Curtis Armstrong) has bolder ideas. He answers a sex ad in the newspaper for a Jackie, promising a good time in the privacy of your home, and pretends to be Joel. He even eats the phone number, so Joel can’t cancel the date.

Jackie (Bruce A. Young) is black and not what Joel was expecting so he pays her for her time, cab fare, and “infinite understanding.” She gives him a phone number on an envelope and says to ask for Lana. “It’s what you want,” Jackie says. “It’s what every white boy off the lake wants.”

Later that night, Joel calls Lana. He sits on the floor, knees curled to his chest. “What’s your name?” she asks. He puts on a catcher’s mask. “Ralph,” he says softly before giving her his address.

He’s fallen asleep by the time Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) arrives. She rings the bell, then lets herself in once he doesn’t answer. He’s mesmerized as she drops her purse by the window and asks, “Are you ready for me?” As he caresses and kisses her, the French doors open from the wind like in one of his fantasies. The camera passes over family photos of him as a boy while they have sex on the stairs.

As a call girl not much older than Joel, De Mornay is sexy, cool, shrewd, and ambivalent, keeping us guessing about what’s in her heart while her mind calculates the value of the rugs and silverware. When Joel doesn’t have enough to pay her $300 fee—he offers to cash a bond at the bank while she waits—she grows impatient and swipes a crystal egg sculpture his mom likes to backlight on the mantelpiece.

Joel’s attempt to retrieve it involves a chase in the Porsche from Guido (Joe Pantoliano), Lana’s “manager.” Lana asks Joel if she can stay with him until she gets her things back. Maybe we should get our friends together, she suggests. “We could make a fortune.”

Joel isn’t keen on the idea. He, Lana, and two friends get high and go for ice cream, but the Porsche gets knocked into gear and rolls down an embankment into Lake Michigan. Joel and his friends take the car for repairs, making him late for school. In the front office, faced with an unexcused lateness that will ruin his grade point average, he mouths off to the nurse and gets a five-day suspension.

His friends try to comfort him, but all he can think about is Lana. He goes to her apartment and rests his head on her shoulder. She hugs him awkwardly, then dives into planning.

“It was great the way her mind worked,” Joel says in a voiceover. “No guilt, no doubts, no fear. None of my specialties.”

The Goodson family home becomes a brothel for the night, and Tom Cruise Movie Star arrives. Wearing a black tee and a gray blazer, Cruise schmoozes through the party, glad-handing guests and radiating a confidence Joel has never shown—and a megawatt smile we’ve recognized from Cruise ever since.

Rutherford (Richard Masur), the Princeton admissions representative, arrives in the midst of all this. Joel ushers them into a room to speak privately, but others want to use it, including Lana, wheeling in a cot. Their eyes meet in a tender moment as Rutherford reads off Joel’s list of typical high-school clubs and activities.

“It’s not quite Ivy League now, is it?” Rutherford says.

Joel takes this better than he might have earlier. “Looks like University of Illinois,” he says to Lana with a grin.

The angst returns a short time later, as he hides out from the party, watching a toy train set run. Lana tells him the girls are talking to Rutherford—“They’re good talkers”—and not to worry so much.

The two make love on the El, and Joel nets enough cash to fix the car, plus extra. A good thing, because Guido and Lana’s friend Vicki (Shera Danese) have taken the furniture. “Time of your life, huh, kid?” Guido jokes. With Joel’s parents arriving at the airport, Joel buys everything back from them with his proceeds, including the egg, which Vicki calls “an artsy fartsy thing.”

She gamely tosses it from the back of a moving truck. Joel stomps across a piano and dives to catch it in the grass.

His friends help him move everything inside in the nick of time. His parents arrive in a cab and he explains he thought they’d be back the next day. As he helps Dad with the luggage, Mom pulls him aside. “What happened to my egg?” She’s noticed a small crack in it.

“It’s so damned irresponsible of you,” she scolds.

Dad says they’ll get another one, and Joel will pay for it. Mom scoffs. Where will he get the money?

He gives a tiny smirk, proud of all he’s been through. Dad later finds him raking leaves. Rutherford has called with good news: “Princeton can use a guy like Joel.”

“That’s unbelievable,” Joel says as Dad hugs him with pride.

He and Lana meet at a restaurant, where he wonders where they’ll be in ten years. “I think we’re both gonna make it big,” she says.

He also wonders if she set him up all along. She says no but thinks he doesn’t believe her. Wiser than he was a week ago, perhaps Joel longer cares.

Made for an estimated $6.2 million, Risky Business went on to gross $63.5 million nationwide—and still holds a 96 percent “fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.com. And just as Lana predicted, Brickman (Men Don’t Leave), De Mornay (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), Pantoliano (The Fugitive), and especially Cruise have all gone on to other success.

Time of your life, huh, kid?

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Author: Valerie Kalfrin, CC2K Staff Writer

Valerie Kalfrin is a multiple award-winning journalist, film and culture critic, essayist, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant living in Florida. She’s written for The Hollywood Reporter, The Script Lab, Script magazine, ScreenCraft, The Guardian, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Signature and other outlets. She’s also the author of “Quicklet on ‘The Closer’ Season 1” (Hyperink, 2012), a guide to the groundbreaking crime series starring Kyra Sedgwick on TNT.

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