No. 10: Risky Business

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

As we enter the Top Ten on our countdown of the highest grossing movies of 1983, we begin with a curious success story, a movie that’s both unique and perfectly definitive of 1983 pop culture. Out of the remaining ten films on our list, I would informally estimate that Risky Business is referenced in the pop culture of 2011 than any other film in the top ten with the possible exception of No. 1 (I’d call it a toss-up). What’s most impressive about Risky Business, the reason it was both a commercial success at the time and remains an effective movie today, is that while it’s built on paper like a typical Hollywood hit, it has the soul of an art film and really says something about life and about the world which its characters inhabit.

Before becoming a $63 million hit with almost unanimously positive critical reception, Risky Business looked like anything but a sure thing to most of the people involved in its production early on. The premise of Paul Brickman’s screenplay sounds like a pretty conventional teen sex comedy, similar to some of the earlier entries seen here on Back to the Movies: a rich teenager named Joel (Tom Cruise) loses his virginity to a beautiful young prostitute (Rebecca De Mornay) and the two ultimately decide to open a brothel catering to Joel’s high school buddies. Sounds like wacky antics will ensue and to some extent they do but the movie isn’t just about the crazy scrapes these characters find themselves in. There’s a great deal of subtext going on here as well dealing with the money-obsessed culture of the ’80s, sex and the loss of innocence, and even the suggestion that all forms of business are in essence equal to prostitution. Those points are made with varying degrees of effectiveness but the fact that a movie like this is even talking about those issues puts it into an elite stratosphere among movies that could technically call themselves sex comedies.

It’s those unconventional themes that also nearly kept the movie from being made in the first place. Studios were scared off by the idea of a “brainy sex comedy” as Porky’s seemed to have laid out the perfect blueprint for a successful sex comedy a year earlier and exploring themes of commercialism and sexuality were not exactly part of the formula. With the major studios passing, the film’s producers wound up turning to the fledgling Geffen Company, a startup studio founded the previous year by music mogul (and eventual Dreamworks co-founder) David Geffen. The Geffen Company had made a splash in 1982 with the well-reviewed box office flop Personal Best but with Risky Business, they saw an opportunity to make waves with both critics and audiences. It was a risk that ended up paying off in a big way for Geffen, who would end up producing films for the likes of Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton later in the decade.

Tom Cruise was without question the biggest breakthrough star of 1983 judging from the 40 films I’ve seen so far on this countdown. After making an early splash in 1981 with a small but memorable role in Taps, Cruise absolutely exploded in 1983, with a small supporting performance in The Outsiders followed by three starring roles: the sex comedy Losing It (which did not make the Top 50) which was released in April, then Risky Business in July and finally All The Right Moves later that year. Of those three starring roles, there’s no question that Risky Business was the moment that set Cruise on the path to becoming the Hollywood icon he would eventually become but Cruise’s ubiquity in theaters in 1983 was a big part of cementing that star status.

Cruise’s performance here is certainly worthy of the hype it ultimately created for him going forward and while the nuances of his performance in many key moments in the film are impressive, I think it’s ability to serve as a sort of broadly-drawn icon that makes this performance so memorable and effective. EVERYONE, whether you’ve seen this movie or not, is aware of the image of Cruise sliding around his parents’ empty house in his socks, underwear and a dress shirt playing air guitar to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”, perhaps one of the most over-parodied moments in ’80s cinema. But there’s another moment that I think was equally iconic for 1983 audiences, even if it isn’t as widely referenced or parodied today. In this scene, which comes about midway through the film when Cruise has decided to take on the ambitious goal of promoting and running a brothel out of his home while his parents are out of town, Cruise takes a quick turn from being a shy, awkward teenager to being a slick, polished and confident salesman. The Ray Ban shades Cruise dons throughout the sequence were a bit out of fashion at the time but many believe their sudden re-emergence on the scene in the mid-80s was directly attributable to Cruise’s use of them in the film to portray a classic image of Hollywood cool.

(Click image to view clip)

While Cruise is clearly the biggest name in the film today, he shared the bill in 1983 with fellow newcomer Rebecca De Mornay. Her performance received equal praise from Roger Ebert at the time who said she “somehow manages to take that thankless role, the hooker with a heart of gold, and turn it into a very specific character. She isn’t all good and she isn’t all clichés: She’s a very complicated young woman with quirks and insecurities and a wayward ability to love.”

The supporting performances are strong all around as well but Joe Pantoliano as Guido and Curtis Armstrong as Miles nearly steal the show in every scene they’re in. Something else that nearly steals the show: the soundtrack. As was the case with The Big Chill, the producers of Risky Business appeared to have run wild with their ability to secure a number of hugely popular songs and at various times those songs either work perfectly (“Old Time Rock and Roll”) or completely and inappropriately take over the scene (Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” during a sex scene), though I should mention that the snippets of original music created for the film by Tangerine Dream are perfectly and fantastically “’80s” music.

These very high highs mixed with almost inexplicable mistakes are the common mark of a first-time director and while Brickman’s ambitious ideas weren’t all perfect, he shows a tremendous amount of promise and originality as a filmmaker in Risky Business. It’s a shame that he didn’t continue to hone his skills as a director as I believe he could have developed into a really impressive filmmaker with a unique voice. As it stands today, Brickman’s legacy is Risky Business and there’s certainly no reason to be ashamed of that. In that one film, Brickman helped mainstream audiences define cool in the ’80s, then asked them to think about the consequences of that coolness and ultimately helped capture the essence of the year 1983 in a way no other filmmaker did.

As a special bonus I’ll be recording podcast discussions with some of our regular FilmNerds contributors (as well as some special guests) on each of the final ten movies on the countdown. Click the link below to download the first episode in which I discuss Risky Business with FilmNerds contributor Graham Flanagan.

DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – Risky Business (with guest Graham Flanagan)

Next Up: Michael Keaton does things a woman should be doing! It’s Mr. Mom.