On the eve of Valkyrie, revisiting Tom Cruise in Risky Business.

Reading and lounging and watching.
Dec. 22 2008 8:42 AM

Risky Business Indeed

Why the Tom Cruise bubble burst.

Tom Cruise. Illustration by Charlie Powell.

A worry shadows the forthcoming Tom Cruise thriller Valkyrie. The worry is that, upon seeing Cruise done up in an eye patch and Nazi jackboots— trick or treat!— audiences will laugh. This is not a high bar for the world's biggest movie star. Cruise is now 46 years old, roughly midcareer for an actor of his stature; and yet the brand has fallen so far that a throwaway summer goof, his cameo as Lev Grossman, the too-Jewish super producer of Tropic Thunder, was regarded as a "comeback." By way of contrast, when Jack Nicholson was 46, he appeared in Terms of Endearment. Nicholson's performance as retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove won him an Oscar, but more importantly, it permitted some humanity to rise up through accumulated strata of stock deviltry, and stand forth warmly. Cruise, meanwhile, gyrates in a fat suit.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

In a cold balancing of assets and liabilities, it's hard to see how Cruise is on the verge of a silver-years renaissance of the kind that awaited Nicholson or, say, Paul Newman (44 for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 48 for The Sting) or Spencer Tracy (49 for Adam's Rib, 52 for Pat and Mike). Cruise has that famous smile, of course, his boyish good trim, and a synthetic American normalcy that puts him over with audiences in Bhutan or Sri Lanka. Now think about what he lacks: humanitas, gravitas, carnality, whimsy—everything, in short, that might rise up to fill a midlife smile with feeling. Even premium Cruise, the A-game actorly actor of Born on the Fourth of July and Magnolia, who gears up a half-berserk lour when working with a directorly director, offers more of the same: bark, glare, seethe, repeat.

I can't name another American icon who has been so popular, and for so long, and yet so hard to like, and for so long. (When the studio sent the then-mostly unknown Cruise to Paul Brickman, the writer-director of Risky Business, Brickman recoiled, saying, "This guy's a killer. Let him do Amityville 3.") But note a curious fact about his career: It maps perfectly onto the 25-year bull market in stocks that, like Cruise, is starting to show its age. Nascent in the early '80s, emergent in 1983, dominant in the '90s, suspiciously resilient in the '00s, and, starting in 2005, increasingly prone to alarming meltdowns. Forboth Cruise and the Dow Jones, more and more leverage is required for less and less performance. Place Cruise next to Nicholson, Newman, and Tracy, and he is a riddle. Place him next to Reagan, and he is not so confounding at all.

More so than any of his contemporaries, Cruise brought to '80s cinema an aura that corresponded to the novel tonalities of Reaganism. From the counterculture nebbishes (Hoffman, Sutherland, Gould) he borrowed a certain insouciant charm. From the silent-majority fascists (Eastwood, Bronson) he borrowed a body queen's emphasis on physique. From the new Brandos (DeNiro, Pacino) he borrowed flashes of Method intensity. He measured and admixed these to create a wholly new male persona in American acting. He is the boyish hard-body, pin-neat, sleek, yip-yippily filled with self-celebration. (He is Andy Hardy, but he can beat the crap out of you.) Certain that the world will find him charming, his biggest challenge is his own dubious maturity.

The perfect apotheosis of Cruise remains Maverick in Top Gun. But before he emerged as the '80s incarnate, Cruise had to kill within himself every tendency to messiness and ambivalence. How do I know? Because before he became the '80s incarnate, Cruise played Joel Goodsen, the neurotic suburban boy of Risky Business. It is a beautiful and authentic piece of acting. To watch his performance today—and you should—is to be present again, not only at the creation of Cruise, the movie star, but at the death of Cruise, an actor bounded by normal human proportion.

Risky Business is widely misremembered as a pubescent sex farce, but it's closer in spirit to The Graduate or The Apartment than to Porky's or American Pie. Written and directed by Brickman, the movie tells the story of a high school kid from the wealthy suburbs of Chicago who turns his parents' house into a brothel. Granted, on first blush this sounds like the classic Hollywood amble of the high concept down the low road. But for an hour before the hookers show up in Glencoe, we get a loving depiction of the rich kid's last go-round with his rich kid's innocence. In the opening dream sequence, Joel happens upon a painfully sexy woman taking a shower in his own house, only to discover he is late for the SATs. Joel's life is dominated by two anxieties: his inability to get laid, and his inability to get into Princeton, his father's alma mater, for which he is at best a mediocre candidate.

What embarrasses the purveyors of Valkyrie is here the source of a captivating charm: the suspicion that Cruise can barely pull this off. Cruise's Goodsen is a vision of a teenager stranded upon the dreariness of the late '70s. Whatever enlivening power the words counterculture and youth movement once held has drained away; a status quo has reasserted itself, but without much enthusiasm. Brickman grew up in the world of preppy affluence and supplied Cruise with its look and feel. (Cruise and Brickman "would show up on the set wearing exactly the same clothes," Rebecca DeMornay, Cruise's co-star, later told Premiere. "The jeans, the sweater, the loafers. It was Tom's outfit for the movie, but it just happened to coincide with Paul's real-life wardrobe. They were both Joel, as far as I could see.") As to the source of Joel's paralysis, Brickman's script is also specific. It is not that Joel can't get laid or get into Princeton. It's that, as Joel sees it, he can't get laid and get into Princeton.

When Joel tries to knuckle down on schoolwork and extracurriculars—he is a member of his school's Future Enterpriser's club—his adolescent cravings take over. Then his shame engages. In the film's funniest set piece, Joel imagines a tryst with a baby-sitter, only to have his superego invade the fantasy. Policemen, firemen, the girl's father, and his own mother surround the house. "Alright, Goodsen, we know you're in there," brays an officer via megaphone. "Joel, the house is surrounded. Do exactly as we say, and no one gets hurt. Get off the baby-sitter." His mom grabs the megaphone, and pleads, "Please, Joel, do what they say. Get off the baby-sitter." Thanks to the internal miswiring of a WASP upbringing, Joel can't both get satisfaction and defer gratification. And then he meets Lana.

Lana is a prostitute and the movie's love interest. As played by DeMornay, she is an extraordinary creation—all hooker, no heart of gold. Joel can only marvel at her lack of conscience. "It was great the way her mind worked," he tells us. "No guilt, no doubts, no fear. None of my specialties. Just the shameless pursuit of immediate material gratification. What a capitalist!" As she goes about fleecing him bald, Lana seizes Joel out of both his virginity and his ambivalent stupor. Here Brickman wanted to tell a story of a loss. The first time Joel talks to Lana, it's over the phone. He's alone in the rambling house, in the corner of his childhood room. Booking her services for later that night, he recedes slowly into a beanbag chair and slides a catcher's mask over his face. He desperately wants to stay a child of Little League and throw-furniture forever. Hearing the honey drip-drip of her voice, he wants Lana more.

The common half-memory of Risky Business conjures up Cruise in asshole eyewear, pimping out his parents' suburban Colonial. But its distinctive pathos derives from its first half, from the nocturnal weirdscape emanating out of Joel's jumbled libido. As this Joel, Cruise allowed himself to be everything the publicity team has tried to convince us, for 25 years, he isn't: insecure, sexually confused, and as Brickman's camerawork takes no pains to hide, physically small.

We are meant to dislike—or at least, feel queasy—in the presence of the strutting superabundant charmer of the second half of the film, as he bursts forth from, and destroys, the chrysalis of Joel Goodsen. When Joel's parents go on vacation, he teams up with Lana to bring his horny friends together with her scheming colleagues, and in Joel's transformation (into a pimp, but also into Tom Cruise), we see the emergence of the '80s as the '80s. It's not just that Joel is no longer innocent; having been played by Lana, he learns how to play others. As they hand him their money, his friends still wear the jeans, the sweater, the loafers; Joel wears shades and the unconstructed jacket with the sleeves rolled up. The Man has been reborn, not as a gray flannel drone, but as a happy libertine.

At what cost? "May 5, 1966," reads a note to Joel from his grandmother, written on the day of his birth. "May your life be filled with happiness and joy." The note accompanies a savings bond, which Joel cashes to fund further misadventures with Lana. As Joel's friends discover the pleasures of Lana's colleagues, they too cash in their birthday bonds. ("You people have a lot of bonds," observes one of the hookers, dryly.) It is a perfectly calibrated act of rich-kid heedlessness but with the clever subtext that, during a time of runaway inflation (as the '70 were), it makes little sense to save for "the future." This is a word the script of Risky Business never loses a chance to deploy. The hookers say future and mean the shameless score. ("He's got such nice friends. Clean, polite … quick. I think there's a real future here.") The boys say future and mean some far off Valhalla to which they may never be invited. "I don't want to make a mistake," Joel whines to his friend Miles, his Faustian tempter, "and jeopardize my future!" "Joel, let me tell you something," replies Miles. "Every now and then say, 'What the fuck.' 'What the fuck' gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future."

The '80s did for money what the '60s did for sex. They told a miraculously tempting lie about the curative powers of disinhibition. It took AIDS, feminism, and sociobiology a while to catch up to our illusions about free love. It has taken cronyism, speculation, and manic overleveraging a while to catch up to our illusions about free money. Now that Ponzi capitalism is collapsing in on itself, the perverse disjunction, of saying "what the fuck" and thereby securing your "future," is simply no longer tenable. Risky Business tried to be clear on the fate of the homely virtues once implied by the label "conservative." Thrift, patience, deferred gratification, self-reliance—all were about to be swept aside like a cobweb, lost as pitiably as Joel's sexual innocence. But in a final irony, the logic of "what the fuck" took over the production itself. Brickman and David Geffen, the executive producer, fought over the ending, with Brickman finally agreeing to let Joel's exploits win him, improbably, a place at Princeton. Is it any wonder we remember the Wayfarers and not the catcher's mask?

"I was just thinking," muses Lana in the film's penultimate scene, done up, Ralph Lauren-style, in the faked old money duds of new privilege, "Where we might be 10 years from now." "You know what," says Joel, totally secure in his own huckster charms, "I think we're both going to make it big." Over the course of the decade, Cruise would play a pool shark, a cocktail mixer, and, of course, a cocky flyboy in a time of peace. By Top Gun, an act of pure kitsch, Cruise was wholly unshadowed by Joel Goodsen, the prudish boy of the first half of Risky Business. As a full co-production of Reaganism, Cruise helped synthesize a new personality type: neat, clean, personable, and lacking in either adult probity or the stray edge, for fear of pricking the surface of a giant bubble. But to live within "what the fuck" is to die within "what the fuck." Jerry Maguire is Maverick's idea of an adult, just as von Stauffenberg is Jerry Maguire's idea of a serious acting role. Of course audiences are tempted to laugh. The Cruise persona, like a junk bond, was never meant to reach maturity.

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