What was Tom Cruise up to before Risky Business? In 1986, he told Roger Ebert, “My first movie was a hell of an experience… I got one day's work on Endless Love, and the director was always grabbing my chest. I wondered, what's going on around here? He did it a couple of times, and I walked away. It was all pretty strange. I was so naive, I didn't understand… Then I did Taps, which was a good experience, and then my agents at the time wanted me to do Losin’ It, which was a teenage sex film. I felt uncomfortable with the subject matter, but the agents said, 'Do it, do it—it’s good for your career.' As it turned out, it was, because I learned a lot of things, including what kinds of movies to avoid.”
Endless Love was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew fame; considering how successful the former was in the late-1960s, it’s interesting how Zeffirelli has been left behind a bit, a director less-known and less-seen than another European provocateur like Bernardo Bertolucci. One of Cruise’s co-stars in Endless Love was Brooke Shields, then at the end of her moonshot beginning, naked in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby and Randal Kleiser’s The Blue Lagoon. If Cruise was pawed by more people than Zeffirelli, he certainly made all the right moves to get the place he was in 1986, fresh off of another iconic role in Top Gun and working with Martin Scorsese on The Color of Money.
From Risky Business on, Cruise has had control of his career. So what about those pre-1983 movies he did because they were good for his career? Curtis Hanson directed him, Jackie Earle Haley, and John Stockwell in Losin’ It, which is, indeed, nothing more than a “teenage sex film.” Bob Clark’s Porky’s was a smash in 1982, and all of a sudden Hollywood was mixing American Graffiti with the kind of low vulgarity (compliment) endemic to the comedia sexy al’italiana; without directors like Michele Massimo Tarantini and Sergio Martino and actors like Alvaro Vitali and Edwige Fenech, there would be no Porky’s, nor Losin’ It (released as Porki 3 in Brazil), nor American Pie at the end of the century.
It’s no wonder Cruise never brings up Losin’ It, despite co-starring with close friend Haley and future director John Stockwell (his 2001 good-poor boy and bad-rich girl movie with Jay Hernandez and Kirsten Dunst, Crazy/Beautiful, is quite good). I was under the impression that it was hard to find, but there’s a high definition transfer available to rent on Amazon Prime right now. Hanson was basically a journeyman, helming dogs like this and the previous year’s The Bedroom Window, starring Steve Gutenberg and Isabelle Huppert and set in Baltimore—while, later in life, winning Oscars for films like L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile. He was best with thrillers—The Silent Partner is a superb script directed in 1978 by Daryl Duke and starring Elliott Gould and Susannah York—and while Losin’ It is well-directed, the lousy script leaves it dead in the water.
But even back then, without the leverage he would have just a year later, Cruise still got the “right” girl—Shelley Long—while Haley and Stockwell have much more screen time making asses of themselves, harassed and attacked by Mexicans eager to taunt the young dumb Americans looking for easy, cheap fun in Tijuana. Roger Ebert called Losin’ It “sick,” a film that says that teenage boys should seek out prostitutes and older women rather than girls their own age; or, at the very least, it offers filmmakers an opportunity to show teenagers having sex. But in the early-1980s, this was all from the boys’ point of view—aside from 1980’s excellent Little Darlings, there are no female equivalents to Porky’s, nor does that film series offer anything but contempt for women.
Porky’s is a thoroughly homosexual movie, even more so than Top Gun; it’s not the bisexual experience of most mainstream cinema. American Pie, for example, offers four pretty-boys as our leads, and ditto for all of the late-1990s and early-2000s high school films. The guys in Porky’s are ugly, actors with narrow appeal in a film about sex. Kim Cattrall, naturally, is the only actor that comes alive in this mess. Losin’ It may be lousy, and it may be “sick” as Ebert wrote, but it’s not misogynistic and cruel in the same way that Porky’s is. Would any movie like this be good for an actor’s career today? No—Ebert’s view has become the consensus, at least in public.
—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith