There are many reasons why a movie sticks around for decades. A huge star, a catchy premise, even a good soundtrack can keep a film in the minds of pop culture fanatics for years. 1983’s “Risky Business” is a strong reflection of what keeps a movie in the pop memory. Granted, the premise of a kid starting a prostitution ring almost by accident isn’t as titillating as it was 30 years ago, the film nevertheless was a break out for star Tom Cruise and for aging rocker Bob Seger who’s “Old Time Rock N’ Roll” became a cultural touchstone as much for Cruise as for Seger.
“Risky Business” tells the story of Joel Goodson an average teenager in the summer between High School and college. Joel would like to attend Princeton but first he must pass an interview. Before he can get to the interview however, he must survive a week alone while his parents are out of town. Joel has no intention of partying but at the urging of friends he decides to use his allowance to get a hooker, so as not to enter college as a virgin.
After a misadventure with a large, transgender prostitute Joel is set up with Lana (Rebecca DeMornay), who happens to be on the run from her pimp (Joe Pantoliano). Together Joel and Lana have an adventure that could turn into a series of sitcom antics, Joel loses his dad’s expensive Porsche in Lake Michigan, Lana’s pimp steals everything in Joel’s house just as his parents are returning home and just as Joel is about to sit for his Princeton interview with a patient but flustered admissions officer, Joel’s in home brothel is becoming a wild success.
Why it worked
These occurrences would be rendered trite in the hands of less capable filmmakers but writer-director Paul Brickman, who would basically disappear after this one success, demonstrates a breezy control over the lunacy while star Tom Cruise, at his untouchable best, crafts a convincing teenage boy even while submitting to the film’s outlandish elements. And then there is DeMornay who gives the film a sexy charge in a role that, on the page was likely a cliché.
It is DeMornay who truly sets the film apart from other so-called ‘teen sex comedies.’ DeMornay is truly sexy, coltish yet evincing a sexual maturity beyond her years. In what remains one of Hollywood’s sexiest moments DeMornay strips on a subway train and gives Cruise the ride of his life. The scene is sexually charged with a strong emotional undercurrent as it’s clear that Joel is falling for Lana while she is fighting feelings for him and confusion over whether this train ride is business or personal.
So many similar movies about teenagers and sex fail to grasp the gravity of sex and especially fail at true intimacy. “Risky Business,” is both sexy and intimate without sacrificing humor. The film is also groundbreaking in terms of pop sexuality offering one of the first strong examples of ‘Cheesecake,’ shorthand for the exploitation of men for the pleasure of women. I am, of course, writing of Cruise’s half naked dance scene.
Cruise’s Star-making moment
Cruise’s button down and undies boogie to “Old Time Rock N’ Roll” is one of the strongest reasons why “Risky Business” is still vividly remembered today. Millions of people have mimicked Cruise’s slide across the living room floor and feet in the air romp on the couch. A check of Youtube finds hundreds of parodies and homages and the Comedy Central series “Tosh.0” even took the time to make famous a pair of girls who attempted to replicate Cruise’s glorious moment.
Why does this scene resonate so much? I think part of the reason is Cruise’s complete abandon, his caution to the wind commitment to the dance and the lip synching seal the deal. Nearly everyone has, when alone, attempted to sing and dance to their favorite tune and that sense of identification rings deeply with mass audiences. And then there is Cruise’s general magnetism; he’s handsome and earnest with a hint of mocking. He knows he’s making a fool of himself and he doesn’t care; at this point in his career Cruise was still in on the joke.
Later, as Cruise rose to become the biggest star in the world, he would begin to lose touch with that grounding knowingness that kept him from seeming arrogant or aloof but in this one moment in “Risky Business” he became the quintessential Hollywood icon both aware and unaware of the effect that he has on audiences. In this moment he was a rising Hollywood sex symbol and not the somewhat off-kilter falling star that 30 years later struggles with the dying of the Hollywood spotlight.
Why ‘Risky Business’ still resonates
Maybe that’s what truly keeps “Risky Business” alive. It is the movie that sheds a light on why Tom Cruise became the biggest star in the world and why he’s now incapable of maintaining that level of stardom. He will never be so innocently charming again. He will never be so young and unassuming as he was in the role of Joel Goodson. And today as he clings to the last vestiges of his star-power we cling to this moment when he was all things to all audiences with limitless potential in front of him.
We love our stars but we especially love watching our stars born before our eyes. That can only happen one time and “Risky Business” is that one time for an actor who would come to dominate two of the monoliths of popular culture; movies and tabloids. Cruise will never have another moment like this again but through DVD and cable the moment lives forever.