Updated: October 1, 2013 6:07AM
Thirty years ago this month, Tom Cruise made his iconic sock-slide onto the big screen in “Risky Business.” In the three decades since the movie’s release, Chicago native Paul Brickman still can’t shake the memory of the frigid fall night on set when he was convinced he would be responsible for Cruise’s untimely demise.
Consecutive days of rain left the writer-director with a single night at Belmont Harbor to film the riskiest scene in “Risky Business.” As dictated by the script for “White Boys Off the Lake” (Brickman’s working title), good-boy-breaking-bad Joel Goodsen (Cruise) joyrides his out-of-town father’s beloved Porsche from Glencoe to the lakefront with Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), his call-girl girlfriend, in tow.
Stuck in neutral with the keys locked inside, the purloined car was to roll down a hill toward Lake Michigan and stop at the very edge of a rickety dock with the panicked North Shore teen clutching the hood in a futile attempt to keep the vehicle from going for a swim. The crew had constructed the platform to collapse — but not until Cruise, who was doing most of his own stunt work, switched places with a fall guy. Brickman worried the pier would give way with his star on it.
The filmmaker’s worst fears that night never transpired, of course. Cruise safely inched his way off the dock and “the car scene” became one of the movie’s most memorable shots — trumped only by an underwear-clad Cruise lip-syncing Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” into a candlestick before he turns his family home into a brothel.
Released during the rise of Reaganomics and raunchy, low-I.Q. teen comedies like “Porky’s” — and before John Hughes’ streak of empathetic takes on suburban adolescence — Brickman’s uncommonly elegant coming-of-age film was a surprise box-office success that was also well received by critics.
“It is one of the smartest, funniest, most perceptive satires in a long time,” Roger Ebert wrote in the pages of this newspaper. “It not only invites comparison with ‘The Graduate,’ it earns it. Here is a great comedy about teenage sex.”
The film made 21-year-old Cruise a household name. But as the actor’s star quickly rose following the release of “Risky Business,” Brickman willfully retreated from the spotlight.
“I moved out of L.A. immediately,” the 64-year-old recalled over the phone from his home office in Santa Barbara, Calif. A private man, especially by film industry standards, Brickman doesn’t usually grant interviews; the first words out of his mouth to me were, “How did you get this number?”
“The success of ‘Risky Business’ was strange because I had Hollywood coming at me full throttle. I found it very uncomfortable,” Brickman said. “Studio heads sent me wine goblets and food baskets.”
Just 34 when “Risky Business” was released, Brickman seemed poised for a productive filmmaking career. But he would direct only one other feature, the 1990 flop “Men Don’t Leave.” He said he declined offers to direct everything from “Rain Man” to “Forrest Gump,” both of which went on to win Academy Awards for Best Picture.
“Some people like the visibility. I don’t. I’m more from the J.D. Salinger school,” he said.
Still, there are occasional pangs of regret. “Looking back, I could’ve taken advantage of ‘Risky’s’ success to a far greater extent,” he said. “I squandered a really good career. What can I say?”
For Brickman these days, the dream is always the same: tennis weekly, composing music in his home studio and quiet time with his wife. He still avoids L.A. at all costs, but last month, a rare event thrust the hermitic filmmaker back in front of Hollywood’s flashbulbs: As part of its Oscars Outdoors series, the Academy screened “Risky Business” as its 30th anniversary approached. It was the first time Brickman saw the film on the big screen with his original ending — a tender, fatalistic scene in which Princeton-bound Joel embraces the forlorn Lana in the John Hancock Center’s 95th-floor Signature Room.
“I fought like a madman to preserve the ending,” Brickman said. At the behest of Geffen, the studio backing the movie, he tacked on some idle, upbeat chatter as Joel and Lana strolled downtown. “I got very close to achieving what I wanted, and then the football was taken away from me like Charlie Brown and Lucy.”
The compromised ending, he said, was one seed of his souring on filmmaking. But at the Academy screening, surrounded by cast and crew, the filmmaker said the good times had on and off set 30 years ago came flooding back. Cruise didn’t attend, but De Mornay was there, as was veteran character actor Richard Masur, who gave a memorable turn as the Princeton admissions officer. Brickman recalled the time he went M.I.A and headed to a Rogers Park blues club to listen to a harmonica player, ditching his second unit during a grueling all-night shoot on the L.
Aside from Brickman’s intimate knowledge of the city’s geography, he chose to shoot his directorial debut in his birthplace for good reasons. “Chicago is 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,” he said. “That’s the journey Joel takes.”
A lonely CTA car famously served as the spot of Joel and Lana’s slow-mo public transit tryst, hauntingly scored by Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” Lake Shore Drive and the Drake Hotel also make appearances, but other locations had more personal associations.
The exterior of Joel’s house is just minutes from the Highland Park home where Brickman grew up the son of Morrie Brickman, creator of the widely syndicated comic strip “The Small Society.” The car chase with Guido the killer pimp (Joe Pantoliano) speeds past the Highland Park Movie Theater, which gave young Brickman an intro to film.
The scene in which Joel’s burgeoning Reagan-era yuppie classmates throw fries at him for not fully embracing the Reagan Revolution was shot in the now-defunct Shelton’s Ravinia Grill. “That’s where I used to hang out after walking home from school in the eighth grade,” Brickman recalled with a laugh.
The feel-good rush of nostalgia from “Risky Business’s” 30th anniversary isn’t enough to make Brickman miss the demands of feature filmmaking. Still, knowing his one-hit wonder endures is satisfying.
“Some of the film’s themes about success seem more relevant today because the world has gotten even more competitive,” he said. “There’s this exaggerated fear of not being able to get into the perfect school, which has become more enflamed.”
He remembered going through the admissions process with the youngest of his two daughters, an overachiever born the year “Risky Business” was released. “It’s ironic,” Brickman said, “I didn’t put pressure on her like Joel’s parents. I told her to make sure she made time to have fun with her friends.”
To Brickman’s amazement, his daughter ended up right where Joel did: Princeton University.
Jake Malooley is a Chicago free-lance writer.