Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Private Lessons (1981)

Directed by Alan Myerson
Starring Sylvia Kristel, Eric Brown, Howard Hesseman, Ed Begley, Jr.
Rated R

It’s preposterous. A 15-year-old boy and his nearly-twice-his-age French maid? Seriously? Stuff of adolescent dreams, for sure. And in the early eighties -- just before the Moral Majority, the PC police, and other social forces had risen up to push such fare out of the cultural mainstream -- a formula for box office riches!

“What happened to him should happen to you,” was the awkward yet unembarrassed tagline for Private Lessons, the R-rated reverse-Lolita story whose premiere in the late summer of 1981 probably couldn’t have been better timed.

The film’s executive producers were Jack Barry and Barry Enright of TV game show fame. In fact, Private Lessons would be the pair’s only theatrical venture together. (After Barry’s death in 1984, Enright would back one other film, the 1987 sci-fi-slash-rom-com Making Mr. Right.) The resume of the film’s director, Alan Myerson, had almost entirely been confined to the small screen, too. And Dan Greenburg, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, Philly, also had only a few credits coming into this one, again mostly in television. (Greenburg who has a bit part as a hotel owner here -- would go on to co-script the similarly-titled Private School in 1983.)

Despite the filmmakers’ relative lack of prior experience, the team managed to hit upon a commercially successful formula with Private Lessons. Brought in at under $3 million, the late summer release earned over $26 million in America (making it a top 30 film for the U.S. that year) and over $50 million worldwide.

There are a couple of possible explanations for the film’s success, one being its appearing right at the height of the teen sex comedy genre’s popularity. A soundtrack filled with chart-toppers of the day might’ve helped as well. And the casting of the alluring Sylvia Kristel, at the time known for her starring turns in the first three Emmanuelle films and more recently Lady Chatterley’s Lover, likely didn’t hurt, either.

Whereas Kristel played the sexual ingénue as both Emmanuelle (in the first film, anyway) and Lady Constance Chatterley, here she’s cast as the one doing the seducing. The turnabout might be interpreted as a clever parody or play on Kristel’s image, but in actuality the idea probably had more to do with commercialism than creativity.

Already an object of desire for adolescent males (of all ages) thanks to late-night airings of the Emmanuelle films on cable, a trailer highlighted by Kristel stripping for young “Philly” was all the enticement needed to fill theaters at least for a few weeks.

The film begins with a strange opening credit sequence -- completely unrelated to the rest of the film -- in which we see a woman’s legs while a couple (neither characters in the rest of the film) make cutesy talk while on a date.

Quick cut to a high school graduation party, complete with lots of gawky dancing and Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs.” We soon meet two boys -- Phillip (Eric Brown) and Sherman (Patrick Piccininni) -- a couple of underclassmen goofing around the party’s edges with binoculars, hoping for glimpses of senior girls in their bikinis. Or perhaps of Miss Phipps (Meridith Baer), the “sexiest teacher in school,” there as a chaperone.

It should be noted that while we’re told Philly is 15 and we assume Sherman is of similar age, both actors could probably pass for 12. (Brown was 16 at the time of filming, which apparently meant that while most of the film would be shot in Arizona, age of consent laws dictated his love scenes had to be done in New Mexico.)

The pair carry their peeping Tom act to a nearby house where they are caught by Miss Phipps. Rather than take them to task, she tries to counsel young Philly. “I know it’s normal for a boy your age to be curious about the other sex,” she says, before offering to take him to the party to find someone his own age with whom to dance.

Wherever that goes, we don’t follow, as soon we’re back at Philly’s house. Or rather, mansion, where Philly lives with his widowed father. Dad is going away on a business trip for three weeks, leaving Philly on his own. He won’t be entirely alone, however, as the servants remain as well. There’s the newly-hired maid, Miss Mallow (Kristel). A gardener named Green (Dan Barrows) flits about.

Oh, and there’s this guy...

That’s Lester, the chauffeur, played by Howard “Dr. Johnny Fever” Hesseman doing his best to remain incognito beneath that remarkable wig.

After Dad’s departure, Lester drives Philly back home from the airport. In an apparent effort to demonstrate his unwillingness to take orders from a teenager, Lester refuses to carry him to the front of the house. Philly glumly walks around, then mopes about the house as Earth, Wind, and Fire incongruously blares over the soundtrack.

Like Philly, the film seems to be wandering about, too, until finally Miss Mallow initiates a meeting with the boy. They talk about former housekeepers, all elderly and much less attractive than Miss Mallow.

“It must not have been so interesting to sit across from your elderly housekeepers and look up their dresses like you're looking up mine right now,” says Miss Mallow, causing a flustered Philly soon to depart.

Later Miss Mallow gets Lester to take her to the grocery store in the limo. During the ride they make what appears to be small talk. “You seem to be getting along with Philly quite well,” he says into the rearview mirror. Then he asks a startling question.

“So when are going to get it on with him?”

Subsequent talk reveals that some plan is afoot involving the seduction of young Philly, a plan with which Miss Mallow doesn’t appear entirely comfortable. “Listen, sweet pants,” says Lester, responding to her mentioning the boy’s youth. “Fifteen is the perfect age,” he explains. “Just think you’re giving him private lessons.”

Meanwhile Philly is back at the house, checking out Miss Mallow’s bra and panties. Soon he’s back to spying with Sherman, this time looking in on Miss Mallow.

A brief exchange between Lester and Philly follows in which the chauffeur explains to the boy how he should not upset Miss Mallow as she had a mild heart attack, forcing her to leave her previous job.

The warning doesn’t stop Philly from continuing with the spying on his own, until finally Miss Mallow catches him. But rather than admonish him, she invites him into her room. Then -- incredibly -- she asks him if he’d like for her to undress! “I guess so,” replies Philly uncertainly. Soon he’s invited to sit down, and the stripping begins.

“What do you think of them?” she asks, top off. “Huh?” replies Philly. “My breasts?” Miss Mallow clarifies. “How do you like them?”

“Oh… nice. Very nice,” says a dumbfounded Philly.

The performance continues until there’s nothing left for Miss Mallow to remove. That’s when Philly does what any 15-year-old boy would do. He runs out to go tell his nerdy friend all about it. Then the pals go play some tennis.

Incidentally, it is during their match we catch a brief glimpse of Ed Begley, Jr. as Jack Travis, tennis instructor.

Later that night, Philly visits Miss Mallow once again, who greets him in the bathtub. "Would you like to wash my back?" she asks, and he does. Soon she's inviting him to join her. "Come on, it will be an adventure," she suggests.

He finally agrees, though keeps his bathing trunks on. Soon enough the lights are out, the trunks come off, and after a bit of ambiguous squealing Philly makes another quick exit to go update Sherman again. Then it’s back for another encounter with Miss Mallow, this time involving a “real” date where Sherman’s sister catches the pair getting familiar at the movies.

Lester drives the couple home as they make out in the back of the limo. Really, it’s the best summer ever. Then it’s up to Miss Mallow’s room to finally (apparently) consummate things. But the virginal Philly finds it needful to ask her to marry him first, and when she refuses he storms out, leading us to another melancholy montage set against Randy VanWarmer’s heartache-y “Just When I Needed You Most.”

They quickly patch things up, though, and we know good times are coming for Philly since Rod Stewart is saying tonight’s the night. Another date follows, highlighted by a goofy sequence in which a non-French actor (Peter Elbling) pretends to be a French waiter. Back up to Miss Mallow’s room, where Air Supply tells us Philly is about to be lost in love.

Suddenly, amid the crossfades and caresses, Miss Mallow cries out and then becomes unresponsive. Philly immediately concludes the worst -- he’s killed her!

Philly runs and retrieves Lester who quickly confirms Philly’s fears, then agrees to help the teen dispose of the body.

Not that the plot was especially believable beforehand, but things rapidly become even less probable as we move into the third act. Lester and Philly dig a grave -- in the front yard (?) -- where they apparently dispose of Miss Mallow. But the next morning the grave has been dug up and the body is gone!

Green the gardener -- who at times seems in on the ruse and other times tries to sabotage Lester’s scheme -- produces a note in which blackmailers are demanding $10,000 to return the body. Philly gets the money from his father’s safe and (inexplicably) gives it to Lester who says he’ll handle the delivery.

Incidentally, the tension level here is exactly zero. We know Miss Mallow is alive, and while the specifics of the scheme are sketchy, it has something to do with the fact that Miss Mallow is an illegal alien, and Lester, threatening to report her if she does otherwise, has gotten her to agree to his blackmailing scheme. And now he has her having seduced a minor as further leverage.

But Miss Mallow, feeling guilty, reappears to Philly (whose surprise at seeing her is surprisingly muted), apologizes, and together they try to figure out how to get the money back from Lester.

There’s only one thing to do, really. Call on Jack Travis, tennis instructor.

No, it doesn’t make much sense. But it does lead to the funniest scene in the film in which a gum-chewing Jack, pretending to be a police detective, visits Lester regarding a tip that Miss Mallow “was homicided.”

Lester confesses that Miss Mallow is alive, agreeing to produce her within two hours. We’re careening toward some sort of conclusion here, which for some reason necessitates Sherman erratically driving Miss Mallow and Philly to the airport in his parents’ station wagon while John Cougar blares (again).

Other highlights from the finale include yet another Rod Stewart-backed montage, a weird back-to-school postscript with Miss Phipps, and Lester remarkably managing to keep both his job and that wig from falling off.

Private Lessons is one of those stories that seems as though it would only really make sense somewhere deep within the fevered, adolescent brains of boys of Philly’s age (or thereabouts). In terms of plausibility, the plot probably works better in Greenburg’s novel than it does on screen, where actors actually have to deliver such lines out loud and perform such unlikely actions. Also, the small-screen sitcomish-style in which story is shot and presented makes it even harder to take the film’s mostly suspenseless dramatic twist at all seriously.

That said, there’s a weird bad-movie charm here that makes the film strangely watchable. Something about the incessant (and loud) America’s Top 40 soundtrack, Dr. Fever sporting that wig and speaking in that affected way, Ed Begley, Jr. parodying Dirty Harry, or chubby Sherman’s potty-mouthed digs at Philly that makes you want to see this one through. That and the surprising payoff in skin (even if some of Kristel’s scenes in fact involve a body double).

Certainly rooted (buried?) in a particular era, what Private Lessons teaches probably has more to do with early-eighties aesthetic (and/or moral) standards than anything related to young males’ sexual tutelage. Still, enough here for fans of movies about girls to dig.

- Triple S

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