RISKY BUSINESS: Kid Cruise Critiques Capitalism
Tom Cruise was denied an audition for Risky Business. Writer-director Paul Brickman thought the 21-year-old actor was a psychopath, and for good reason. Cruise was a bit player and professional weirdo best known for playing an arsonist (Endless Love), a killer (Taps) and a greaser (The Outsiders). His only leading role was in the terrible teen sex comedy Losin’ It where he starred as a kid who, uh, tries to lose his virginity to a prostitute. Brickman, a first-time filmmaker, didn't need that bad mojo.
But Cruise was determined to play Joel Goodsen. He was so embarrassed by Losin’ It that he fired his agent and hired CAA's Paula Wagner, who made a secret deal with one of Brickman's office mates to sneak Cruise into the building. Cruise shook Brickman's hand, called him "Sir," and flashed his soon-to-be-trademark smile. He got the audition and he got the part, despite having to shoot his chemistry test with Rebecca De Mornay while still wrapping The Outsiders. She was repulsed by his stringy hair, chipped tooth and stink—Cruise, a fledgling method actor, had refused to shower for most of The Outsiders ' 9-week shoot.
Before it opened in August of 1983, Risky Business was written off as another disposable riff on Porky’s. Thirty years later, we think of it as a sure-fire hit. Both are wrong. That summer, Risky Business was dangerously, electrically new. The plot sounds like dude-bro wish fulfillment: a high school senior crashes his father's Porsche, turns his house into a brothel, and still gets admitted to Princeton. Slip on Cruise's Ray-Bans, however, and the film's message looks darker. Risky Business isn't a how-to guide for achieving the American Dream. It's a deadpan satire on corrosive consumerism. "It's not about prostitution. It's about capitalism," insisted producer Jon Avnet. “In The Graduate when Benjamin was offered a job in plastics, he rejected it as fake and lacking meaning. Today, most kids would just say, 'Where do we sign?'"
Joel Goodsen is a prisoner of ambition. Instead of playing him like a hopped-up horndog, Cruise's performance is paralyzed with fear. Joel scared of everything: of his "girlfriend" Lana, of her pimp, of failing his SATs and of failing his parents. Brickman frames Joel like he's in a cage—Cruise is shot behind window blinds, masks, and barred doors. We remember his pants-less dancing because it's literally one of the only times he moves. He's no Ferris Bueller and he's definitely no role model. In one scene, he desperately grabs the lapels of the school nurse to plead for an excuse from missing a midterm. A lesser comedy would have played the moment for laughs. Instead, Joel gets suspended. This world has consequences.
Cruise's blue-collar background was miles away from Joel's McMansion cocoon. He'd spent his own high school years working part-time jobs to help support his single mom and three sisters. Forget the Ivy League—at 18, he'd moved to New York with nothing but $2000 bucks and his determination to make it in show business. To make sure he looked the part, before shooting began on Risky Business, Cruise shed 14 pounds of muscle, then packed on a soft layer of fat so Joel's pecs would jiggle when he wandered around in his underpants. "I didn't want any physical defenses up for him," said Cruise. "No muscle armor at all." Risky Business was a surprise hit, but most critics ignored Cruise's acting. They focused on praising Brickman's striking visuals, like the first-person POV sequence where Joel's bustling parents harangue him about proper stereo calibration as they leave on vacation. The tunnel-vision lecture was directly inspired by The Graduate's scuba scene, and shares its humiliation and absurdity. ("Honey, did you pack my mace?" Mrs. Goodson chirps off camera.) And like Dustin Hoffman before him, Cruise knew that nailing the role was his chance to go from character actor to star.
He got the stardom, but ironically, Cruise was so convincing as a posh suburban kid that critics who'd missed his more-thuggish earlier roles thought the new teen heartthrob was barely acting at all. “I read a review of my dance number in Risky Business that somehow failed to talk about my work," he sighed. "After I’d worked so hard to create a character, that was frustrating." A few writers praised his charisma and innocence, but one of the only critics who cut through Cruise's charm to find the craft underneath was Roger Ebert, who wrote that the newborn star "knows how to imply a whole world by what he won't say, can't feel, and doesn't understand."
Audiences didn’t understand Risky Business, but they loved it. Thanks in part to the cheerful ending David Geffen forced upon the film, it was seen as a celebration—not condemnation—of '80s capitalism. In his black t-shirt and sports coat, Cruise became the poster boy of consumerism, a persona he'd go on to explore in Cocktail, Rain Man and Jerry Maguire. But even if you're determined to ignore Cruise's argument that "Joel—and not Rebecca De Mornay's character—may be the real prostitute,” Risky Business is still damned good.
Enjoy Curtis Armstong as Joel's best friend in his last few glorious months before being typecast as Booger in Revenge Of The Nerds. Sink into Tangerine Dream's eerily beautiful score. See if you can spot Cruise's then-best friend Sean Penn in the passenger seat when Joel first backs his dad's Porsche out of the driveway. Argue about whether or not Cruise and De Mornay are really boning in their subway sex scene. (Answer: No. They didn’t become a real-life couple until after filming wrapped.) And join Joel—and Cruise, who spun a heartthrob role into a three-decade career—in knowing when to say, "What the fuck, make your move."
This piece was originally published in the Alamo Drafthouse Summer of '83 guide. See when Risky Business is playing at your Alamo here.