For better or worse, the moment that Phoebe Cates went topless in Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) became a cultural touchstone for a generation. Although not significant enough a moment to serve as a reference point on the show Stranger Things, the scene where Betsy Russell rides a horse topless in Private School (1983) is equally associated with the youth culture of the eighties. These images of objectification of the female body by the masculine gaze reiterate the conservatism of the Reagan era and the rampant misogyny of the Hollywood machine.
The film Private School is motivated by nothing more than creating these kinds of sleazy spectacles. Private School isn’t a film about rival high school students Phoebe Cates and Betsy Russell so much as it is about how these girls are viewed by the males in the film and the audience. Every woman in Private School is treated within the image complex of the film as little more than a sexual object with which Matthew Modine and his buddies can play. The bawdy sexual comedy of Roger Corman’s exploitation films found themselves appropriated by mainstream cinema as the centerpiece of teen comedies. John Hughes’ success with the teenage demographic is largely due to the fact that his films are a direct and anti-sex reaction to pictures like Private School.
It goes without saying that very little ages well in a film like Private School. The best case scenario for the comical bits in a film like this is that maybe only a few gags get a laugh. But Private School is decidedly unfunny, witless, and totally dull. None of the jokes land at all. Of course, this isn’t helped at all by the schizophrenia of the narrative where half the film is a passionless romantic drama about Cates and Modine while the other half of Private School is a succession of sexualized set pieces built around Russell’s breasts. It’s a dichotomy with no thematic link where if it weren’t for the recurring performers Private School would feel like two disparate films that had been cut together.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Private School is that it had so much potential. When Sylvia Kristel’s name appears in the opening credits as the sex education teacher one anticipates some rather risqué reflexive humor that will no doubt draw on the iconic actor’s legendary role as the title character in Emmanuelle (1974). But Kristel’s casting is all the joke is. Each of Kristel’s subsequent scenes in Private School simply reiterates the joke that is inherent in that opening title card. Ray Walston is given more to do but his role as a horny chauffeur barely exploits his comedic gifts at all.
Private School (in all its derivative, hum-drum, horn-ball glory) was a quick cash-in by Universal Pictures after the surprise success of Private Lessons (1981). The studio threw some financing at the writers, director and producer to create another sex comedy and what they got was a pretty pedestrian picture that affirms Cates’ “girl next door” status and Betsy Russell’s image as a sex icon. It hardly seems worth the investment all things considered.