One day during the long lazy summer of 1983, I found myself at a matinee of Mr. Mom and saw a trailer that featured a kid in his underwear lip-synching Bob Seger and a quick glimpse of unshaven teen saying “I’ve got a trig midterm tomorrow and I’m being chased by Guido the Killer Pimp!” The former got me curious, the latter made damn sure I was at Charlottesville, Va.’s now-defunct Barracks Road Theater (where I’d seen my first-ever movie, Disney’s Song of the South, in 1972) the night Risky Business opened.
Most of the teen sex movies of the early 1980s had less to do with what it was like to be a teenager in the 1980s than they did with what it was like to be a teenager in the 1950s and ’60s, the era when the folks who made them had grown up. The genre was stuck in the long shadow of American Graffiti and Happy Days, and filmmakers were acting under the assumption that there was no reason kids born when LBJ was in office wouldn’t identify with the worldview of the almighty Boomers. The most notable exception up to that point was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a movie short on characters I could identify with. (Even in 1982, it was obvious that Judge Reinhold was practically pushing 30). The trailer for Risky Business suggested I was in for something different; what that was I could never have anticipated.
As much as I loved them, teen sex comedies didn’t exactly make me feel good about being the kind of kid I was in 1983, the year I turned 15. They all took place in a world where smart and sexually inexperienced kids (i.e., guys like me) were always laughably pathetic, and rich ones (me again) were universally evil and arrogant. Here, finally, was a movie that didn’t pass judgment on those qualities. In the opening scene, our hero Joel Goodson recounts a dream in which he’s riding his bike home through his affluent neighborhood and winds up inside a neighbor’s house where a nubile girl invites him to join her in the shower, a dream that turns into a nightmare when the shower stall turns into a classroom full of his peers taking the SAT, for which he’s three hours late. How could I not identify with the guy?
Joel may be good-looking, but fundamentally, he’s all nerd. Much as the scene where Joel pours himself a tumbler of Chivas with a splash of coke to wash down the TV dinner he eats by candlelight is a nerdy approximation of adulthood, the scene everyone remembers—in which he lip-synchs Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” while prancing around in his skivvies—is an equally clueless approximation of rebellion. Like the great iconic characters, Joel’s a bit of a blank slate, all the better for the audience to project images of themselves onto. He’s not defined by what he is (rich, handsome) but by what he’s not: not as studly as his pal Glenn, not as cool as Miles (a disheveled iconoclast who’s on his way to Harvard while the clean-cut Joel faces an uncertain future), and not as geeky as Barry, who doesn’t even know that “bonking” and “fucking” are the same thing.
The trappings of Joel’s life are such that he could be seen by neckless future fratboys as a reflection of themselves—a success waiting to happen—but he’s also one of the few screen teens of the ’80s who’s ever shown doing actual homework. Dominated by his wildly materialistic parents and surrounded by peers with a much clearer sense of their future place in the world (or at least the illusion of such a sense), Joel was, beneath his looks, what millions of naïve and confused kids saw themselves as: a smart, well-meaning type looking for a road map to guide them toward something approximating maturity through a world they didn’t feel like they belonged in. Tom Cruise, the actor who played him, was born Thomas C. Mapother on July 3, 1962, giving him six years on me—a yawning chronological chasm when you’re 15. But Joel Goodson was born on May 5, 1966 (per the birthday card his grandparents attached to the savings bond he liberates from a safe-deposit box to pay for his sexual initiation with a prostitute)—a more bridgeable two years and twelve days older than I— and the first time I saw everything turn out OK for this schnook who has nightmares about showing up three hours late for his SAT, who can’t even masturbate in peace without the specter of parental authority invading his head, I felt like someone had handed me the map I’d been looking for since the second my balls dropped.
Risky Business’ status as the film that made Tom Cruise Tom Cruise overshadows its status in the teen-movie pantheon, but there’s an emotional reality to it that puts the arguably-more-celebrated films of John Hughes to shame. Hughes set his movies in a made-up Chicago suburb, Shermer, but Business takes place in the real-life community of Glencoe, IL, and that fact—combined with the way the film acknowledges that Joel and his peers are uncommonly wealthy instead of acting as if everyone lives the way they do—provides the story with a grounding in reality that’s absent from most of the Hughes oeuvre. And while Business is a movie that commodifies sex, it’s also a film that acknowledges a truth Hollywood seldom articulates—that sex is actually something that scares and confuses teenage boys. After the dream, Joel plays poker with his friends and tells them about the time he chickened out on a chance to lose his virginity, a common experience that real-life guys cop to even less often than they acknowledge choking the chicken. Joel’s confession leads Miles to offer a piece of advice destined to loom forever in the collective subconscious of my generation: “Sometimes,” he says, “Ya gotta say ’What the fuck’, ” driving the point home by adding “If you can’t say it, you can’t do it.”
When Joel’s parents leave town for a few days, he follows his buddy’s advice in baby-step increments, dipping into the family liquor cabinet, screwing around with his dad’s precious equalizer and taking the old man’s Porsche out for a joyride. “That’s a good start,” says Miles, who forces his friend to take things to the next level by calling a prostitute for Joel, then swallowing the newspaper ad with her phone number so Joel can’t wimp out. The prostitute, Jackie, turns out to be a black transsexual—and when Joel balks at her arrival, she resolves the situation under the customer-is-always-right doctrine (“When you’re buying a TV, you don’t get Sony if you want RCA”) by passing him the number of a hooker named Lana, saying, “It’s what you want. It’s what every white boy off the lake wants.”
And was she ever! As Lana, Rebecca De Mornay seemed a Platonic ideal of which Jack Jouett Middle Schools precocious Shifflet girls were a mere shadow, the perfect embodiment of a brand of pragmatic sexual confidence I’d never seen in a girl who didn’t live in a trailer park. After Joel has the sexual initiation of his (and my) dreams (she rides him like a mechanical bull on his dad’s La-Z-Boy, as the American flag fades to static on a TV in the background), Lana displays a money-hungry, all-business attitude the next day that briefly villainizes her before her secrets are revealed: She ran away from home, we learn, because her stepfather wouldn’t stop coming onto her. Her vulnerable state led her to become the virtual slave of her pimp, Guido, and the rest of the movie becomes a romantic fantasy about her and Joel liberating each other from their respective prisons. One scene in particular made me buy into this fantasy with a vengeance: After driving his father’s Porsche into Lake Michigan and getting suspended from school, Joel, at the end of his rope, runs to Chicago for a shoulder to cry on. As the camera swirls around Lana and the broken, defeated Joel during an extended hug, it’s made clear that a real, intimate connection with someone you can turn to in your darkest hour is more valuable than mere sex—a downright subversive notion in an era loaded with movies about hormone-crazed maniacs desperate to lose their virginity by any means necessary. And while that may be true, I was too entranced by the moment to pay attention to a key detail: the revelation that sexual pragmatism I found so attractive in her (and, by extension, the Shifflet girls) was a direct result of her stepfather’s endless attempts to get into her pants. I became convinced that if I could save a girl like her from a life of exploitation, she could save me from my miserable family life—without realizing, of course, just how damaged such girls often are.
Which is how I wound up spending the next seven years looking for Lana.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.