“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.” — Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) in Risky Business (1983)
So, this is the film where Tom Cruise — playing a high school senior named Joel, who has been left at home on his own while his wealthy parents go on vacation — ends up dancing around his living room in his underwear. It’s a scene that has shown up in countless awards show montages and which has been parodied, imitated, and recreated to such an extent that even people who have never seen the movie know the scene.
Risky Business is about a lot of different things. It’s a coming-of-age film. It’s both a celebration and a satire of material excess and greed. It’s a time capsule of the 80s. It’s a comedy. It’s a drama. It’s a somewhat twisted romance. It features good performances, clever dialogue, and an excellent soundtrack. It’s a film that does for “Sometimes you just go to say, ‘What the fuck?'” what Dead Poets Society did for “Carpe Diem.”
But ultimately, for a lot of people, Risky Business is always just going to be about Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear.
And why not? It’s a great scene, one that deserves its fame. I’m not just saying that just because I happen to love dance scenes in general. When Joel celebrates having the house to himself by dancing, he’s also celebrating his independence. He’s celebrating the fact that he can do whatever he wants. He’s celebrating freedom. It’s true that sometime you just got to say, “What the fuck?” But some other times, you just have to dance.
And you can’t deny that Tom Cruise is at his most appealing and spontaneous in this scene. Actually, he’s at his most appealing and spontaneous throughout the entire film. Up until I watched Risky Business, my main impression of Tom Cruise was that he was the creepy guy who forced Katie Holmes to abandon Catholicism for Scientology and chop off her hair. I knew he was an okay actor but his greater appeal was lost on me. I think that if I had gotten to know the Tom Cruise in Risky Business before I got to know the Tom Cruise who jumped up and down on that couch and who is rumored to be the secret leader of Scientology, I might have a different opinion of him as an actor.
Anyway, with all that said, here’s that famous scene:
As I said, as famous as that scene may be, there’s actually a lot more to Risky Business than just Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear. In fact, you could remove that entire scene and Risky Business would remain one of the defining films of the 80s. It tells the story of Joel Goodson who lives up to his name in almost every way. He’s a very good son. He gets good grades in high school. He’s a member of the Future Enterprisers of America. His father has decided that Joel is going to go to Princeton and Joel isn’t one to argue. When his parents leave him alone at the house, they also leave him with a long list of rules and they have every reason to believe that Joel will follow every one of them.
But then Joel meets a prostitute named Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) and he makes an enemy out of Guido the Killer Pimp (Joe Pantoliano) and then his father’s car ends up rolling into a river and, next thing you know, Joel is partnering up with Lana to turn his house into a brothel and they’re making $8,000 in one night.
And really, as good as Tom Cruise is, Rebecca De Mornay is even better because she has a tougher role to play. As written, Lana is essentially a male fantasy figure. (And there’s still a part of me that suspect the entire film was meant to be Joel’s daydream.) But, as played by De Mornay, Lana actually becomes a real human being and someone who definitely has something important to say. If Cruise gives the film its energy and its heart, De Mornay gives the film a brain. It’s no coincidence that Joel is the one who dances in the living room while Lana is the one who sets up business deals. With her no-nonsense approach to life and her love of money, she comes to symbolize the film’s own conflicted views of wealth and success. It’s not by chance that the American flag appears on TV while Joel and Lana are fucking in the living room. Together, Joel and Lana are the perfect American success story.