“My name is Joel Goodson. I deal in human fulfillment. I grossed over eight thousand dollars in one night. Time of your life, huh kid?”
Paul Brickman’s “Risky Business” (1983) plays as well today as it did the first time I saw it. Even better. When it came out, I was fresh out of high school. I didn’t fully understand its satire and commentary, but I related to the main character like no other film until that point, except perhaps “The Graduate.” It captures that floating through life feeling that you have when you’re eighteen and parents and society are weighing you down with expectations. Although my sexuality distanced me from the main character, I shared some of his preoccupations, in particularly wanting to get into an Ivy League school and trying to figure out my desires and obsessions. Were greed and lust the same thing? What differentiated the movie from all the other teenage comedies that became the norm in the 80s is how sophisticatedly well-made it is, and that it marked the birth of one of Hollywood’s most enduring movie stardoms, Tom Cruise.
Since its release I have watched the movie several times, and I have taught it at Santa Barbara City College. Full disclosure, I know Paul Brickman and interestingly I have never spoken to him directly about my passion for his film. He followed this huge success with “Men Don’t Leave” in 1990, a drama starring Jessica Lange which was not as well received but is a very good film. I’ve never asked him why he didn’t continue directing movies. He’s extremely talented, and a recent fresh look at “Risky Business” makes my admiration grow deeper.
To begin with, unlike your typical comedy it is not shot in high key lighting. There’s an undercurrent of darkness and high contrast to the cinematography. In the scene in which Joel makes the phone call to Lana, the prostitute, the movie recalls a film noir. He’s seated on the floor by the side of his bed in chiaroscuro – and there are anxious shadows created by the blinds on his window. There’s a lit neon sign on display that alternates the words “Cashed” and “checks.” Then we get a close-up of Joel (Cruise) as he lowers a catcher’s mask on his face. Brickman heightens, and presents such a familiar environment and makes it enticing and unsettling. When she walks into the house announcing “Are you ready for me?” Joel is literally awakened from a slumber. As he lifts her dress, and they start making love, the French doors to their right blow open, and autumnal leaves tumble in.
Brickman also wrote the terrific screenplay.
“Sometimes you gotta say ‘What the f*%ck,’ make your move,” says Miles, the mischievous best friend. “Joel, every now and then, saying ‘What the f*%ck,’ brings freedom.” Joel lives in Chicago’s rich suburban North Shore neighborhood and has been brought up to play by the rules with the promise of upper middle-class fulfillment via an acceptance to Princeton University. “If you can’t use it properly, you’re not to use it at all,” his dad tells him about the equalizer. “My house, my rules.” He’s enlisted into the “Future Enterprisers” a scholastic entrepreneurial exercise that will beef up his resume, and he strives to do well in his SATs. When his parents leave on a two-week vacation, Joel is left by himself. “Just use your best judgment. We trust you,” his mother says.
Joel, spurred by Miles, invites a call-girl to the house, and the following morning he doesn’t have enough money to pay for her services. Lana takes his mother’s precious Steuben glass egg from the mantle as collateral. While attempting to retrieve it, they bump into Lana’s pimp whom she’s been trying to break away from. Lana and other colleagues take refuge in Joel’s house, and come up with a business scheme where they can make money from hormonal teenagers. “It was great the way her mind worked. No guilt, no doubts, no fear. None of my specialities. Just the shameless pursuit of immediate gratification. What a capitalist,” observes Joel. Lana is a fascinating character and not what you expect. She takes control of the situation, and it’s she who becomes the catalyst for Joel’s transition into a more confident person, more aware of how to bend the rules to his advantage. And yes, there is also the criticism of modern consumerism.
And amongst the hypnotic visuals underscored by an electronic sonic world by Tangerine Dream, there are the iconic moments like the lovemaking sequence on the L train scored by Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” and of course Tom Cruise in a pink Oxford shirt, Ray Ban wayfarers, and white jockeys dancing in the living room with a candlestick as a microphone to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock n Roll.” That scene is the visual representation of a repressed character’s taste of freedom, ironically framed within a frame by the entryway.
Joel Goodson : “Some of the girls are wearing my mother’s clothing.”
Lana : “What’s wrong with that?”
Joel Goodson : “I just don’t want to spend the rest of my life in analysis.”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO Max, DIRECTV and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, FandangoNOW, Redbox and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written and Directed by Paul Brickman
Starring Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay, Joe Pantoliano, Richard Masur, Bronson Pinchot
Writer/Director Paul Brickman on Writing “Risky Business”
“Well, I headed out to a rented cabin in the West to write it. I wanted to do a film for young people that was very stylized in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I wanted to make the film that if I were in high school I would’ve wanted to see. I was writing it in the time just after Reagan had taken office and everyone wanted to be a little capitalist, get their M.B.A.s and wear power suspenders. I thought, That’s all dandy, but life is more complex and darker than that. It’s tough out there. Capitalism takes its toll on a lot of people…The working title was “White Boys Off the Lake.” I think the studio rejected that because it sounded like an off-Broadway play. [Laughs] So we started doing word association to come up with a new title. (salon.com)
Brickman on the Music of “Risky Business”
“Initially we sent some film to Tangerine Dream in Germany and they came back with their first pass, and it was clear they were trying to write music to a typical teen movie. The chord changes were like ’50s and ’60s teenage rock. I remember going, “Oh, man. Do we start looking for new composers or do we stick with these guys?” That’s when we — the music supervisor, producer Jon Avnet and I — got on a plane and went to Berlin. We hung out in Tangerine Dream’s studio for ten days and knocked out the score with them. I’ve played piano my whole life, so I have some musical background. We were very fortunate because the guys in Tangerine Dream were great collaborators. They had strange working hours. They owned and worked in an old church. We’d start work around dinner time and work through the night every night.” (salon.com)
Brickman on Chicago and the Making of “Risky Business”
“Chicago is a set up well for “Risky Business,” because you have the relative safety of the North Shore and you have the train line connecting to adventure and darker elements in the city. That’s the journey Joel takes. So it was an exploration of things not only geographically, but an exploration of the darker side of himself…we had a lot of night shoots. One night we were filming the shots around Chicago’s Loop El tracks that were in the opening credit sequence of the city. It was a cold night and I was on a camera platform on a train all night long shooting with a second unit. I remember thinking, What am I doing here? I gotta have some fun. I gave them a series of shots to get and went up to a blues club in Rogers Park, got a drink and listened to this great harmonica player. When I got back downtown, the train was still going around the Loop and I got back on and we finished. (salon.com)
Tom Cruise on Landing the Role of Joel
“I was doing ‘The Outsiders’ in Tulsa, and I had to come back to Los Angeles for a day for some reason. Originally, Paul had seen Taps and said, “This guy for Joel? This guy is a killer! Let him do ‘Amityville III’!” Somehow, my agent, without me knowing, arranged to have me just drop by the office to say hello. So I went in wearing a jean jacket, my tooth was chipped, my hair was greasy. I was pumped up and talking in an Oklahoma accent, “Hey, how y’all doing?” Paul just sat there, looking at me. He said, “Let’s just read a little bit.” I’m not a very good cold reader. What I do is start with a line and go off and ad-lib and kind of find my way down the script. I started reading the thing, and they were ready to say, “Okay, thank you.” I didn’t know. I cut them off and said, “let me try it this way.” I started from the top again and I did it another way and we ended up reading through half the script. It was fun, we were all laughing. Then I came back later and tested for it at six in the morning. I was shooting nights and so I flew in late, got in at 1:00 A.M. and I had to leave at 10:00 P.M. to shoot the rumble scene in ‘The Outsiders’ that night. Here I was again. My hair was greasy and I was heavy, but now I was wearing this preppy maroon Adidas shirt. My arms were huge. I walk in and see this stunningly gorgeous woman sitting there looking at me and I’m thinking. “Oh my God.” Rebecca [De Mornay] had already been cast. They wanted to see the two of us together. I tested, and to make a short story long, we didn’t test that well. Paul just believed in me. I told him exactly what I was going to do. We talked about it for a long time and he trusted me.” (theuncool.com)
About Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos
Rey Villalobos is an award-winning cinematographer and director. As a cinematographer he has filmed such movies as “Urban Cowboy,” “Nine to Five,” “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” “A Bronx Tale,” “American Me” and “Bordertown” as well as numerous television dramas. He has worked with actors such as John Travolta, Jane Fonda, Debra Winger, Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, Michael Caine, Demi Moore and Lily Tomlin, and with directors such as James Bridges, Robert De Niro, Gregory Nava and Edward James Olmos. (latinopia.com)
About Cinematographer Bruce Surtees
Bruce Surtees…became known as “the prince of darkness” for his muted and often lugubrious style of lighting. However, while Surtees was well-suited to the nocturnal street scenes of “Dirty Harry” (1971), the Rembrandt-esque arrangements of “The Beguiled” (1971) and the claustrophobic interiors of “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979), all directed by Don Siegel, he was also at home with the wide open spaces of the western “Joe Kidd” (1972) and the surfing movie “Big Wednesday” (1978). His deceptively simple black-and-white scheme for “Lenny” (1974), Bob Fosse’s semi-documentary biopic of the comedian Lenny Bruce, earned Surtees an Oscar nomination…Cinematography was the Surtees family trade. Bruce was born in Los Angeles, where his father, Robert, was starting out as a camera assistant and operator. Robert had worked regularly with the acclaimed cinematographer Hal Mohr, and chose Mohr for one of Bruce’s middle names. When Bruce was a teenager, Robert hit his stride as a director of photography, winning his first Oscar for “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950). Bruce attended the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, gained experience as a technician for Disney and assisted his father on films including “The Hallelujah Trail” (1965). He had proved to be a reliable camera operator – memorably capturing a motorcycle chase in “Coogan’s Bluff” (1968) – and Siegel gave him the chance to graduate to the role of cinematographer on his US civil war film “The Beguiled”…While many mainstream cinematographers employ three or more principal sources of light in a set-up, Surtees experimented with fewer and used them at lower levels. He achieved increased depth and contrast in the process, as well as creating stronger shadows. For one sequence in “The Beguiled,” he relied on a solitary bulb to replicate candlelight. Siegel was thrilled: “We didn’t care that it was black, that it wouldn’t show up on a television screen when the studio sold the picture to some network in a couple of years. Screw them. We liked it. It was exciting.” Surtees’s drab palette complemented The Beguiled’s gothic tone, Louisiana locations and the montage of sepia war photographs used in its title sequence. The film was a box-office disappointment but ensured his lengthy collaboration with Siegel and Eastwood.
In “Dirty Harry,” a deserted sports stadium was eerily lit and shrouded in mist for the scene in which Eastwood’s cop confronts the serial killer Scorpio. Eastwood’s directorial debut, “Play Misty for Me” (1971), was shot around Carmel, California, where the star later became mayor and Surtees’s own family also settled. His breezy location photography – including scenes at the Monterey jazz festival – matched the star’s freewheeling role as Dave, a late-night DJ, but he introduced heavier shadows as Dave is threatened by his jilted lover. The film was made for a modest cost with a small crew and Surtees’s efficiency was valued by Eastwood, who has always prided himself on bringing in films on time and under budget. For Eastwood’s High “Plains Drifter” (1973), influenced by the star’s spaghetti westerns, Surtees favoured a wide aperture to ensure as much light as possible was captured in the Eastern Sierra setting of California. In the opening and closing sequences, he achieved a spectral light as Eastwood’s mysterious stranger appears and disappears amid the shimmering desert haze. Eastwood’s later westerns “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) and “Pale Rider” (1985) were shot in autumn, with Surtees exploiting the softer light and low sun. On “Escape from Alcatraz,” his last film with Siegel, the minimal lighting matched the grey and blue prison uniforms. After “Pale Rider,” he was replaced as Eastwood’s regular cinematographer by his former camera operator Jack Green. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Surtees lit leading men such as Gene Hackman (in the noirish “Night Moves”), John Wayne (in his final role, in “The Shootist”) and Laurence Olivier (in the much-derided epic “Inchon”)…the glossy, bright lighting he provided for “Risky Business” (co-photographed with Reynaldo Villalobos, 1983) and “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984) enhanced two of the decade’s biggest box-office stars, Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy. In his later years, Surtees could still be relied upon to give an extra polish to middling material such as “The Crush” (1993), “Corrina, Corrina” (1994) and the television film “Dash and Lilly” (1999), the last of which brought him an Emmy nomination. (theguardian.com) Surtees passed away in 2012.
About Writer and Director Paul Brickman
Paul Brickman (April 23, 1949) is an American screenwriter and film director, born in Chicago, Illinois. He is best known for the film “Risky Business” where he served as director and screenwriter. Before transitioning to directing, Brickman began his career penning offbeat films such as “The Bad News Bears” in Breaking Training and Jonathan Demme’s “Handle with Care.” In 1983 he made his directorial debut with “Risky Business” starring Tom Cruise. In 1990 he wrote and directed “Men Don’t Leave” starring Jessica Lange, an adaptation of the 1982 French film “La Vie Continue.” Brickman is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College. (8hours.com)