The Dream is Always the Same: From Tom Cruise in "Risky Business" to Timothee Chalamet in "Call Me by Your Name"
Tangerine Dream's sultry synths pulse in the background as the camera zooms out from twinky Tom Cruise's wayfarers, a slim cigarette dangling from his lips as he flashes back to a reoccurring dream of sneaking into the neighbor's house and stumbling upon a beautiful girl showering, she invites him to wash her back, but the steam obscures his reach for her until he finds himself transported to a classroom, three hours late for the college entrance exams.
With the aforementioned opening scene following the moody neon pastel credits as a night train rolls through a gritty Chicago twilight, we are introduced to Joel Goodson and for the most part, Tom Cruise, in Paul Brickman's 1983 classic Risky Business. The film was a breakout for Cruise, who some 35 years later has both delivered and disappointed on the potential of his brilliant performance in this early movie. Cruise can act and when he truly slips into character, as he did when portraying the innocent "Good son" turned bad boy in Joel, one can almost forgive the formulaic action vehicles he prefers these days. As iconic as Cruise's performance is and how gorgeously stunning his twenty-something features are, what makes Risky Business still potent today is Cruise's ability to be a cipher for the candid story being told, one of money, power and sex.
Cruise, costumed in a preppy varsity jacket, plays Joel as a wholesome All-American boy-next-door whose first inclination when his parents go away for a trip is to strip down to just a pink dress-shirt and underwear and dance away in the living room and hump the couch to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" -- it's Risky Business' most famous scene but Brickman's film is stacked with classic images and a perfect soundtrack mixed with peak Tangerine Dream and the likes of Jeff Beck and Phil Collins. Risky Business set a template for the forthcoming teenage adventures of the Brat Pack era and the slew of canon John Hughes. It also laid a blueprint for a look at the darker side of the Windy City's upper-class, white suburbs north of Lake Shore Drive.
Amidst the backdrop of the cozy affluent suburb of Glencoe, Joel and his friends crack jokes about sex and debate the differing starting salaries of Harvard MBAs versus physicians. The idealistic Joel, whose successful father wishes for him to attend his Princeton Alma-mater, asks of his friends if they'd rather truly accomplish something than just make money -- laughter and the latter being their response. As Dustin Hoffman's character Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate was consumed with the same sexual frustration and path of life anxiety after completing college, Joel the high school senior appears to be a virgin and not quite living up to his supposed Ivy League pedigree. Simon & Garfunkel's folk hymns scored Braddock's rude awakening on the precipice of the counter-culture movement in The Graduate, whereas hypnotic, lush new wave usher in Joel's transformation in a decade where sex and money would come to be defined by HIV/AIDS and the philosophy of "greed is good."
While Hughes classics such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Breakfast Club were sanguine at heart, Risky Business is raw even for today's standards. In the former Hughe's film, Cameron accidentally kicks his father's prized red Ferrari into the forest, Joel "borrows" his father's Porsche, gets into car chase with a pimp and later on sinks it into Lake Michigan. One of Joel's friends gets him a hooker named Jackie, who turns out to be a butch trans, which freaks Joel out. Jackie kindly passes Joel the phone number to Lana, who he assures is more his type. Once Joel gathers the nerve to phone Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) she practically teleports into his living room, appearing in a magical, seductive whisk. De Mornay portrayed the streetwise call girl as both divine and dirty, whipping Joel and getting him stuck between the quarrel with her sleazy pimp Guido, which eventually leads to Joel and Lana turning his house into a brothel, just in time for the admissions interviewer from Princeton to show up during a rowdy bacchanalia.
Aside from trashing his daddy's Porsche, Joel gets to live out the high school boys' fantasy of getting to score with a hot, mature woman. Lana molds him into a slick hustler, schooling him to the game of life in a way that his advancement placement classes and entrepreneur clubs never could. Cruise doesn't play Joel as wide-eyed and ignorant as Jon Voight's Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, but there are some thematic parallels between those two films. Plenty of Cruise's '80's filmography borders on pure homoerotica and Risky Business appeals to a gay aesthetic on many levels. Joel is more sensitive and isn't as macho as some of his friends, instead being closest to Bronson Pinchot's character Barry, who seems to be the classic closeted friend archetype who is in love with his friend Joel.
Of the same initials as Cruise, Timothee Chalamet burns with the same intense fire on-screen in his star-making performance in last year's Call Me Be Your Name. Compared to Risky Business, the film is a more modern, European take on the loss of innocence, but also set in the early '80s. As with Joel Goodson, Chalamet's Ellio Perlman is a privileged youth, vacationing with his parents in Italy where his academic father takes in a graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) to be his summer assistant. Chalamet is a wide ranging talent who can play bad boy (Lady Bird) or boy next door, he can be Cruise or Charlie Sheen -- in his upcoming role in the A24 film Hot Summer Nights, it seems he will dive into the '80's era square turned hustler a la Risky Business.
CMBYN boasts a magnificent soundtrack of both original recordings (Sufjan Stevens updating the acoustical aesthetics of Simon & Garfunkel with his magnificent numbers) as well as some great Italo Disco, for a musical experiences that intertwines both The Graduate and Risky Business as well as Hughes. Director Luca Guadagnino replaces sports cars with bicycles and tiny Fiats and the gorgeous landscapes in CMBYN, the peaceful lakes and valleys that encrust the Perlman's tranquil villa, are a contrast to the Midwest architecture of Chicago. The cute courtship between Ellio and Oliver is fueled by the great chemistry between actors Chalamet and Hammer and the film, in the spirit of movies of the generation in which the story is told, has little hang-ups when it comes to portraying the sexuality of its characters.
The intersection of Risky Business and CMBYN at the plane of sexual freedom and teenage rebellion is part of what binds the two films together, that and both have leads who look great in a pair of Wayfarers. While the bookish pianist Ellio becomes romantically involved with the older Oliver, leading them both on adventures in the Italian countryside, Joel heeds his friend's advice to just say "fuck it" and soils his oats with Lana, the hooker with a heart of gold. While the parents in many of the classic coming of age teenage movies are "checked out" or shitty to their kids, Ellio's parents are both loving and accepting, culminating in a tear-jerking speech from his father near the film's finish on the beauty of embracing the rarity of true love. Meanwhile, Joel's father is overjoyed to hear the news that "Princeton can use a guy like Joel," completely unaware of just what exactly that means.
The sexual awakenings of the upper-class white male, from The Graduate and Risky Business to CMBYN, are tragic in the way first loves always are. CMBYN is certainly the most dramatic of the aforementioned films, but one gets the sense that Ellio emerges to be the most well-adjusted of these men, meanwhile Joel, Benjamin and Oliver could be running from their truths for years to come, stuck in a daydream life until pinched back to reality.
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