A while back, I wrote an article about the 1980s teen hit movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and how its title character–the hero of the movie–was actually a raging (but extremely charming) psychopath who scored high on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist.
I realized that most of the movie hits marketed to teens in the 1980s also idealize narcissism and psychopathy/sociopathy. One of the must successful movies of that era was a movie starring a then-unknown young actor named Tom Cruise (who I highly suspect of being an extremely malignant narcissist and probably a psychopath himself). I had a huge crush on him; many of my friends did too. But what was it about Joel Goodson (Cruise) that made him so attractive, that set the stage that turned Tom Cruise into a megastar and cultural icon whose fame (or infamy?) is still growing to this day?
I think one of the reasons these films were so popular was because the implications that sociopathy was A-okay came at the perfect time–when material values like wealth and power were beginning to be idealized over the humility and idealistic values of earlier generations. The fact that the movie starred people just entering young adulthood (and was marketed to a teen audience) made sure the next generation of adults would get the not-so-subtle message that psychopathy and narcissism are necessary to be happy and succeed in life.
The now iconic “dancing in underwear” scene.
The protagonist, Joel Goodson, was a studious, vulnerable, somewhat nervous kid, not much unlike Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He studied hard, made good grades, and obeyed his parents. He was naive and unassuming and just a little nerdy. But he was nice and seemed fairly popular in the low key kind of way enjoyed by smart, good kids who don’t make waves, especially when they’re as adorably handsome as Cruise was.
But Goodson was being tainted by his charming but sociopathic friend, an unattractive but uber-cool, edgy kid named Miles (Curtis Armstrong). Miles was the Ferris Bueller to Cruise’s Cameron, and his main goal was to “reform” him of his prosocial ways. His main advice (and the most important as it turned out) was his mantra “Sometimes you just have to say what the f*ck” (in this sense meaning not giving a damn and doing what you want).
Goodson’s parents go on vacation, leaving him in charge of their stately suburban Chicago home (why are these movies always taking place in upper middle class Chicago suburbs?) Miles encourages Joel to loosen up and have fun and not worry about consequences. He raids the Goodson’s parents’ liquor cabinet, gets Joel to smoke pot, and cons him to take part in antisocial escapades. He also invites prostitutes and other unwholesome types of people to Joel’s home while his parents are away.
One of the prostitutes is a gorgeous blonde named Lana (Rebecca DeMornay) who seems to care about Joel in a maternal, nurturing way. Despite her questionable profession, she seems to be the best thing that could happen to Joel. She’s the empathetic mother Joel never had, whose own mother seems almost as cold as the mother in “Ordinary People.” Lana listens to him. He confides in her. She’s using him–but he’s too naive to know it yet.
Joel’s falling helplessly in love, but Lana has her own agenda. She invites (without asking Joel’s permission) some of her other prostitute friends over to Joel’s house, including Vicki, who is Lana’s best friend. They all go out to party along with Miles and a few of Joel’s other friends and get so stoned that they forget the put Joel’s new Porsche in the right gear when parking and it rolls down the hill into a lake. The car is filled with water and must be pumped out. Joel panics–he can’t afford the repairs but his parents will kill him if they find out. What to do?
Lana comes to the rescue. She talks Joel into having a party, in which all her friends will be there and take money for sex with all Joel’s friends and he can earn enough from the proceeds to get his car repaired before his parents come home. Plans are made for it to happen.
Meanwhile, Lana’s pimp Guido (Joe Pantoliano) is causing more problems for Joel. He’s stalking her for money she owes him and Joel is caught in the fray. Lana doesn’t seem too worried about it though. As a narcissist herself, she doesn’t worry about much of anything. Joel falls more deeply under Lana’s thrall. But she has other plans. Guido keeps stalking Joel and Lana, demanding his money.
Party day arrives, and is more successful (and makes more money) than Joel could have dreamed. The only low point was when an officer from Princeton’s School of Business Administration decided to show up randomly at the door at the party’s high point, with everyone drinking and having sex in every room and bills exchanging fists. The interview ends and the officer appears to leave.
Joel’s in an awkward position, but tries to enjoy the rest of the party. Meanwhile, the Princeton officer has never left. He’s in one of the rooms having sex with one of Lana’s friends.
The “new and improved” Joel Goodson.
After the party, Lana and Joel make love on an empty Chicago “El” train. Moody music plays and their lovemaking is tender and romantic–for the moment it seems like this hardened prostitute could be falling for Joel as much as he’s fallen for her.
When Joel returns home, he finds his parents’ home has been cleaned out, including his mother’s rare and expensive Steuben glass egg. His parents are due home in hours. Panicking, he calls Lana but gets Guido, who informs him the only way he can get the furniture and the egg back is by buying them back. Joel gets his friends together and they all go to Guido’s house where Joel’s parents’ possessions are being held hostage in the back of a van. They manage to get everything back and have it in its proper place just as Joel’s parents return home, to find their house looking as if it’s never been touched–except for one thing: a small crack in the Steuben egg.
In spite of that, Joel’s father tells him he’s proud of him for being so responsible and being accepted into Princeton– it turns out the officer who wound up bedding a whore was impressed with Joel’s enterprising nature and thought Princeton “could use someone like Joel.” He and Lana remain friends, but Joel’s changed. His attitude is a lot more cocky and confident than before. His reticence but also his conscience seem to be gone.