Private Lessons (1981) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for nudity, sexuality, and language
Running Time: 87 min.
Cast: Eric Brown, Sylvia Kristel, Howard Hesseman, Ed Begley Jr., Patrick Piccininni, Ron Foster, Meredith Baer
Director: Alan Myerson
Screenplay: Dan Greenburg
Review published July 5, 2005
Titillating stuff for its time, Private Lessons was but one of many films to come out in the early 80s about teenage boys that manage to score with older women willing to show them the act of "making love". It was actually a hit at the time, with My Tutor to follow shortly after in 1983, the same year that the best of them, Risky Business, would also score big. As controversial as the subject matter may be for many people as it is, Private Lessons does have one thing that makes it far more controversial than other films made by mainstream Hollywood -- the boy in the story is played by an actor that was actually underage at the time, as opposed to the early 20s like the male leads in the other films. Yep, Eric Brown was a 16 year old boy, having to perform some racy scenes, and some simulated sex scenes to boot, and while this may be nearly every boy's fantasy, the exploitative nature of the film does make it somewhat depressing to think about. Although the actual scenes are tame compared to similar scenes of other movies at the time, the obvious youth of the main actor does give the film a more smutty feel than the makers of it probably had hoped for, making what might otherwise be an interesting coming-of-age film altogether distasteful.
Private Lessons is based on the novel "Philly" by Dan Greenburg, who not only adapted the screenplay, but also has a small role as the hotel clerk. It's the story of Philly Fillmore, a 15-year-old son of an oft-traveling, wealthy businessman, who spends his days at the home catered to by the chauffer, Lester (Hesseman, Doctor Detroit) and the sexy newly-hired maid, Nicole Mallow (Kristel, Emmanuelle). Philly, being young and full of raging hormones, spends a great deal of his time checking out Nicole, trying desperately to catch her in a state of undress, which seems to be quite often, mostly because she is trying to entice the young lad for reasons of her own. Soon, the barrier is broken between the voyeur boy and the sexy housemaid, as she is all too eager to show Philly the ways of love.
Private Lessons is billed as a comedy, and I suppose it plays like one enough to justify this, although it seems like the story is meant to be much more serious. It would be hard to play this as a straight drama, since the character motivations would appear all the more ridiculous if not done in a farcical manner, although the "love story" of sorts between the maid and young boy tends to get on the serious side more often than not. Say what you will about the age of Eric Brown, but he actually does play his role in competent fashion, lending an air of sympathy to his role that makes the maid look increasingly guilty in her seduction of the unsuspecting teen.
Despite the daringness of the subject matter, the direction by Alan Myerson (Police Academy 5) is uninspired. He does benefit from the use of a popular soundtrack, including popular hits by Earth Wind and Fire, Air Supply, Eric Clapton, and a few from Rod Stewart. Needless to say, the soundtrack is far too good to be utilized in a movie this cheap, but at least it gives us some nice tunes to listen to when the storyline becomes uninteresting.
Kristel does exude the sexiness required for the film to work, and I have to credit her for keeping a straight face throughout all of the scenes, although it is interesting that she opted not to actually perform in the lovemaking scenes, where a body double was used. However, Howard Hesseman, perhaps the most seasoned actor of the troupe, looks downright uncomfortable, sporting a look inspired by Inspector Clouseau. Ed Begley Jr. (Goin' South, The One and Only) also has a supporting role as a tennis instructor, possibly needing the paycheck, since this was the first film he had done in a couple of years.
Private Lessons caused a small stir at the time of its release, and even earned a pretty good profit, making about $30 million at the US box office (not bad for a film budgeted at $3 million). However, it's been all but completely forgotten since, and stands now only of interest for those nostalgic for teen sex films of the early 1980s and those who have a jones for Sylvia Kristel. Subpar stuff on almost any other level.
-- Followed by an in-name-only sequel (more of a remake, really) in 1993, Private Lessons II. It's Japanese. Yep.
©2005 Vince Leo