We take a look back at Tom Cruise’s breakout hit Risky Business, which turned 40 this month…
Tom Cruise is probably the last great movie star and still pulling in the big bucks with the latest in his Mission: Impossible franchise, which despite the naysayers, will still likely tip close to two-thirds of a cool billion by the time its theatrical run ends (and would have done more if not for unexpectedly huge returns from Barbenheimer). 40 years ago it all began with a breakout year where Cruise was part of a huge ensemble in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, but more importantly his first leading role in Risky Business.
Some films are truly unique. The coming-of-age teen comedy back in the day was marked by high peaks like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which among the usual attempts to get laid or get high, incorporated some weightier topics and perfectly captured that crushing hit of adulthood just around the corner. Oh, the joys of responsibility. That film aside the larger output of films was more focused on the anarchic chaos of youth with films like Animal House, Porkys, Revenge of the Nerds and more. The emphasis was very much centred more on youthful exuberance and bawdy and/or physical comedy.
Describing Risky Business, however, is difficult. A dreamy, almost cerebral coming-of-age film that borders on fantastical with its unlikely scenarios. The lurid aspects seem to avoid any moral questioning given the very nature of the film’s odd style and Cruise’s boyish charm. Had he come across as more cocksure, arrogant or somehow exploitative it wouldn’t have dated as well.
There’s a difference between Cruise’s Joel setting up a brothel to cater to high school seniors looking to boost their experience before college, than if you had the same setup orchestrated by Steve Stifler for example. Not least as Joel kind of gets swept away by an idea given to him by the dazzling call girl Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) who manipulates him into a series of farcical situations (that still feel like the escalating misadventures one might dream of). The fact it’s a strong female character calling the shots and her ballsy colleagues make them feel more empowered than exploited has probably helped Risky Business evade the ‘woke’ microscope.
Central to the film’s dream-like state, aside from a lot of listless journeys and encounters in the dead of night, is the score from Tangerine Dream. You have dreamy synth atmospherics, sometimes undercut with pulsating sequences. Several tracks, most notably Love on a Real Train have been reused countless times in other shows, movies and video games. That fantastic and evocative score is also perfectly supplemented by a stellar soundtrack and Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight is a song with depth and almost ominous threat that perfectly fits its sequence.
Risky Business is a really strange odyssey where Joel learns to step back from the pressure put upon him to be a high roller, looking at Princeton or bust (to follow in his father’s footsteps). Though his journey from a sterile family home and affluent upbringing to becoming worldly and enterprising has those lurid aspects it still manages to enrapture to this day. The film’s unique approach to the ‘teen comedy’ feels almost like an approach A24 might attempt now in a modern subversion of tropes.
At the centre of the film is the undoubted star quality of Tom Cruise, and his gawky lack of assurance, to begin with, seems totally against the unshakable persona he’s since built up as an action star. Of course, he builds assertiveness through the picture here, but it’s still a fascinating starting point. The fact Cruise looked younger than his age, and even his playing age, also imbued his character with a naivety and endearing awkwardness.
Likewise, De Mornay is sensational in this. It’s an early role in her career and she’s almost ethereal. With a degree of stoicism at times she manages to beautifully portray the complexity within. There’s a depth of emotion as we can visibly see her moral quandary. Is Joel just a mark, or is he more? At the heart of her journey is a desire to serve her own needs. Whilst it’s not life or death, it’s a direct need to feel in control and call the shots rather than just be another hooker to a pimp (Joe Pantoliano, who is atypically great).
The film couldn’t retain such a legacy purely on a dreamy atmosphere, great soundtrack and cast. It needs to have memorable moments to be iconic. Most significant pop culture moments in cinema are built on memorable moments and identifiers. It could be Cruise’s living room dance in his underwear as the bored Joel spends his weekend night of freedom alone, with nothing to do but slide across his floor or hump his couch to the tune of Old Time Rock and Roll. It might be dunking his father’s Porsche into a river or the love scenes.
Some 40 years on, even if the film had maybe not suggested quite Cruise’s level of superstardom, it’s fair to say many will have predicted his box office golden touch that has carried through each decade he’s been in the business. Cruise’s charisma was recognised by the Golden Globes for this film, where he received a nomination for Best Actor (in a comedy/musical).
Perhaps more surprising is that De Mornay was unable to sustain major leading parts into the 21st century or writer/director Paul Brickman was unable to hit the potential shown here. He was pretty well established by this point anyway, but Risky Business is the standout film in his resume. Personal legacies aside, Risky Business remains a unique experience with a blend of elements very few have attempted since.
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Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls, Renegades (Lee Majors and Danny Trejo) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan), with more coming soon including Cinderella’s Revenge (Natasha Henstridge) and The Baby in the Basket (Maryam d’Abo and Paul Barber). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.