Before he was an action star, pop culture icon, and scientology advocate, Tom Cruise was an unknown young actor dancing in his underwear to “Old Time Rock and Roll” on the set of RISKY BUSINESS (1983).
Originally entitled “White Boys Off the Lake”, RISKY BUSINESS was inspired by Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST (1970). The filmtells the story of Joel Goodsen (Tom Cruise), a meek and passive young man, whose life is changed after he calls up a prostitute one night while his parents are on vacation. Lana (Rebecca De Mornay, the prostitute) is smart, ambitious, materialistic, and ruthlessly money hungry. Over the course of the film the pair start a brothel in Joel’s home, have a car chase with ‘Guido the Killer Pimp’, and drive a Porsche into a lake. This film is suspenseful, sexy, funny, and highly poignant; It’s a teen comedy with a dark underlying message that still feels relevant today.
Directed and written by Paul Brickman, RISKY BUSINESS was first hailed by critics for its unique visual style. Throughout the film, Brickman uses many surrealistic techniques as a less didactic way of revealing how the characters are feeling. One scene that is particularly effective is the fantasy sequence between Joel and ‘the babysitter’. In this scene, Joel’s house becomes swarmed with police as he is about to have sex with ‘the babysitter’. The glaring lights, panicked voices, and hilarious dialogue all reveal how anxious Joel is feeling about wanting to call a prostitute. Another interesting visual motif is the subway car. Though it is shown on several occasions throughout the film, one of its most prominent scenes is when Joel and Lana have sex on “a real train” as it barrels across Chicago. This scene is highly symbolic as it signifies Joel’s departure from his swell, rich, and sheltered neighborhood, both physically and metaphorically.
Unfortunately, after the wild success of RISKY BUSINESS director Paul Brickman essentially left Hollywood. He was offered other scripts such as FOREST GUMP (1994) and RAIN MAN (1988), but he decided to decline them. When asked about his departure from Hollywood at the height of his career, Brickman often brings up the ending to RISKY BUSINESS which was forcibly changed by the studio. The ending we see in the film, of Lana and Joel joking in a park, leaves the audience with a warm feeling. However, the ending was originally intended to be much more unsettling. Brickman wanted to end on a sarcastic note, with the line “isn’t life grand?”, a comment on the way Joel has now been corrupted. With an ending like that, Brickman wanted to achieve the same type of feeling we get when Joel’s parents come home and his mother comments on her cracked glass egg. This is a feeling of disgust for a culture that values monetary worth and in turn, the worth it gives the owner. However, the studio didn’t like this ending because it felt too openly critical. They didn’t think an audience would respond to such a satirical ending. It’s impossible to say whether the studio was right to change the ending but regardless, their film is one of the most famous of the 80’s. Brickman can certainly be credited for the film’s success however, Tom Cruise is also responsible.
RISKY BUSINESS was Tom Cruise’s first starring role and it secured him a wildly successful career in Hollywood by giving him the exposure he needed to get prominent roles in other films such as TOP GUN (1986) and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (1996). While many people can’t imagine another actor playing the iconic role of Joel Goodsen, Tom Cruise was not always Brickman’s first choice.
“I went in wearing a jean jacket, my tooth was chipped, my hair was greasy. I was pumped up and talking in an Oklahoma accent, ‘Hey, how y’all doing?’ Paul just sat there, looking at me.” Cruise told Interview Magazine. Despite this, Brickman was interested enough in Cruise to bring him in for a screen test with his soon to be co-star Rebecca de Mornay. According to Cruise, the test went horribly. Nevertheless, the young director took advice from his own script and said “what the fuck”, casting Cruise anyway. It was arguably the best decision the director could have made for his leading man.
The reason Cruise was such an excellent choice lies in the subtlety of his character. Joel is not a typical hero. Unlike the majority of Cruise’s future roles, Joel is a doormat. He is not confident but passive. He doesn’t argue when he is taken advantage of, he is ambitious to a fault, he is nerdy, he is brave but he is also scared. He’s scared to let down his parents, he’s scared of not getting into an Ivy League school, and he’s scared of letting down a prostitute that he just met. Brickman uses all this as a platform to explore privileged rich lifestyles and criticize materialistic culture. Over the course of the film, Joel discovers how he can benefit from this system by being rewarded again and again for his self-serving, exploitive, and capitalist efforts rather than good intentions. In fact, every decision Joel makes with good intention, for example letting Lana stay at his house, leads him into more trouble. However, when he succumbs to Lana’s capitalist pressure by turning his home into a brothel, he is rewarded with 8000 dollars in profit and a place at Princeton University. In fact, his interviewer (who bore witness to the brothel situation and possibly participated in it), says “we could use a guy like Joel”, suggesting of course that these types of prestigious institutions aren’t necessarily looking for those who are most deserving of admission, but rather those with power and connections.
Ironic given the themes of the film, RISKY BUSINESS had a very positive effect on two major companies, Porsche and Ray-Ban. The former garnered an incredible amount of screen time as Joel’s father’s Porsche is quite prominent in the film and the latter reaped amazing monetary benefits. In fact, Ray-Ban’s sales increased by 50% after Cruise wore a pair of Wayfarers in the film. Three years later, when Cruise wore a pair of Ray-Bans in his next hit, TOP GUN, the company received another boost in sales, an increase of 40%. In addition, RISKY BUSINESS itself grossed nearly 64 million dollars, a seriously ironic monetary reward for a film that criticizes capitalism so openly.
Another thing that stuck out to me, as I re-watched this film with 2020 eyes, was the potentially sexist nature of the plot. More and more the public is realizing the systematic abuse suffered by women in the film industry and the limited roles given to women on screen. As a result, more films are becoming conscious of how they portray their female characters. In RISKY BUSINESS, all of the female characters are prostitutes controlled by one man or another. However, what stops me from condemning this film as a glorification of the male fantasy is the drive of these female characters. Lana, for example, is extremely underprivileged but she is also extremely dominant in this film. She is the one who ropes Joel into helping her, she takes advantage of him, she exploits his passive attitude and lust for her, and she is the one who pushes him to start a brothel. While the audience recognizeswhy it’s wrong that a man who can afford a Porsche earns 8000 dollars by exploiting women, we also recognize that Lana is the one in control most of the time. Anything she says, Joel will do. Nevertheless, the question still remains; Is this film a timeless comment on sexism, capitalism, and privilege, or is it a glorification of the male fantasy? I think it is the former. I think that with modern eyes, this film comes off as a criticism of toxic male culture rather than a celebration of it.
For nearly 40 years, RISKY BUSINESS has remained a staple of the teen movie genre and successfully inspired other iconic films such as FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986) and arguably, HOME ALONE (1990). Astonishingly, the themes presented in RISKY BUSINESS are still relevant today and its message is still read loud and clear to a modern audience. As the director himself said in an interview with Salon: “Some of the film’s themes about success seem more relevant today because the world has gotten even more competitive. There’s this exaggerated fear of not being able to get into the perfect school, which has become more inflamed. If those themes were really thin, this film would’ve disappeared into the ether long ago.”