Private Lessons (1981) – A Review


The story of a young teenager who begins an affair with thirty-something maid. It’s the controversial 1981 sex comedy Private Lessons starring Sylvia Kristal and Eric Brown.


Private Lessons 1981 Movie Poster“Philly if you want to watch me undress so badly you should have told me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, do you want to watch me undress?”
“Well, uh..sure…uh…I guess so.”

This is a very bad movie.

Private Lessons tells the story of Philly (Eric Brown), a 15-year-old rich kid who is deep in the throngs of puberty. As Philly’s father leaves on a summer trip Philly is left alone with the chauffeur Lester (Howard Hesseman) and the new French housekeeper Nicole (Sylvia Kristel). Philly’s sexual curiousity catches the attention of Nicole, whose sexual advances confuse and scare him before he finally overcomes his nervousness and they’re soon getting it on.

After Nicole seemingly dies during one of their ‘private lessons’, Philly enlists the help of Lester who buries Nicole’s body. When a mysterious note appears threatening to expose the crime, Lester instructs Philly to get $10,000 from his fathers safe to make the problem disappear.

However, all is not how it seems. It’s revealed that Nicole is alive and is an illegal alien. She has been blackmailed by Lester and forced into this scheme to steal the money or else he will report her to immigration.

Private Lessons Sylvia Kristal Eric Brown older woman seducing young manIn the end Philly and Nicole team up and with the help of Philly’s tennis coach (Ed Begley Jr.) who masquerades as a cop they expose Lester’s crime. They all agree not to say anything. So Lester keeps his job and Nicole doesn’t get deported, but leaves fearing that Philly’s father will one day learn of their affair. Philly has gotten a memorable life lesson as he heads off into the sunset in search for more older chicks to get it on with.

I’ll say it again – this is a very bad movie.

Although the premise of this young kid getting seduced by the maid sounds like the ultimate teen fantasy it really doesn’t play out as much fun. It does seem somewhat awkward when Nicole starts getting flirtatious with Philly. It feels kind of creepy and not as amusing as I would have thought it could have been.

I didn’t like any of these people or bought into this relationship. None of the characters are very interesting. Philly is just a curious kid who comes off obnoxious and arrogant most of the time. By the end of the story he doesn’t seem like he’s grown and learned any lessons in maturity from this experience.

I did like the fact that Brown actually looks like a fifteen-year-old kid though, but I still didn’t like his character.

Private Lessons Sylvia Kristal Eric Brown older woman young manAlthough Nicole is meant to be a sophisticated, adult woman, she comes off as a pretty stupid character. In order for her to avoid deportation she has sex with a minor, fakes her own death and is an accomplice in a robbery? I don’t think her deportation problem is a weighty enough problem to warrant her doing even worse criminal acts. I would have just taken my chances with immigration.

Personally, I don’t find Kristel attractive, so the seduction scenes were kind of lost on me anyway. She might have been popular in those Emmanuelle flicks, but she doesn’t do anything for me.

The second half of the movie with this blackmailing scheme is disorienting and feels pretty uninspired. It just feels like padding as if the filmmakers couldn’t think of anything more to do with Nicole and Philly and they came up with this ridiculous storyline. I felt it even more frustrating that the only fallout is that Nicole leaves. Lester even keeps his job after what he tried to pull? Pretty stupid.

The comedy in this situation….is nonexistent. It’s pretty much one of those open-mouthed movies where I just stared shaking my head any time I was meant to laugh. It all falls flat.

Hesseman and Begley can be two funny guys, but here I felt pretty embarrassed for them. I’m not sure how Houseman ended up in this. Begley I can understand, he was still up and coming. But Hesseman had already been on WKRP in Cincinnati, what did he need this work for? I don’t know what he saw in this that made him agree to do it. Maybe it was just an easy paycheck.

Private Lessons 1981 movie Sylvia Kristal Eric BrownThe most surprising thing to me was learning Jan DeBont famed director of Speed and Twister was the cinematographer on this film. Go figure.

This film was very popular when it was first released. It ended up being one of the biggest hits of the year in 1981. I’m thinking it must of been the risque subject matter that lured people to want to go see it.

The film doesn’t do anything interesting with the story. This isn’t Lolita where it portrayed a sexual adult/child relationship for drama. It’s nowhere near as good as the Summer of ’42, which had the young teen attempting to romance an older woman and resulted in both laughs and a sweet nostalgic aura to the story. Private Lessons goes for the basics – goofy laughs and visual stimulation. It falls flat on both counts.

Not surprisingly there was some controversy over the sexual relationship between the adult Sylvia and the fifteen-year-old Philly. At one point Lester does threaten Nicole with reporting her as a child molester, but that’s as far as that goes. It’s meant to be a comedy afterall. If the sexes were reversed in this story this would have probably been a drama or thriller.

Private-Lessons-1981-romantic-comedy-teen-older-woman-Eric-Brown-Sylvia-KristelWatching Private Lessons I couldn’t help but consider how times have changed since 1981. An adult woman having sex with a kid is just too sensitive a subject today to try to make a comedy out of it. We read about teachers getting arrested all the time in the news for having sex with students. In 1981 I guess there was a more carefree attitude about it.

The filmmakers did have to do some maneuvering to film certain scenes. While the film was mostly shot in Arizona, the state’s consent law of the age eighteen was a problem. The film moved to New Mexico during production to film the love scenes between Kristel and Brown, a state where the legal age of consent was sixteen. 

Private Lessons did elicit a response from audiences. Producer Jack Barry received loads of hate mail from moviegoers who were disgusted by the film. Thanks to the negative blowback, it would be the last film Barry made.

Sylvia Kristal Eric Brown Private Lessons 1981 movieI doubt if anyone would make this movie today. Or if they did it would be played much more dramatic and followup up on the repercussions of this adult/child affair. Sort of like how that remake of Arthur had the character go to Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1981 Dudley Moore’s Arthur was able to have a happy ending and still stay a stinking drunk.

So, if it were to be remade it wouldn’t be played as casual and blase as it is here. Although, didn’t That’s My Boy use a kid getting his teacher pregnant as the catalyst to the story? Hmmm…maybe they would
make this movie today.

I vaguely remember seeing this pop up on cable back in the day. I had only seen parts of it, so this was pretty much a new movie experience for me. It’s got a good title. Private Lessons. Ooooh. It sounds like you’re in for some titillating fun, but don’t be fooled it’s actually pretty putrid. It does have some good songs that run throughout it, but just listen to the radio for that.

Eric Brown would be back for another romp with an older woman in 1984’s They’re Playing With Fire. His co-star in that flick – Sybil Danning. Maybe I’ll check that out next. It has to be better than this.

2 thoughts on “Private Lessons (1981) – A Review

  1. Almost ten years after writing this review on Private Lessons, and there’s still no comment on it yet? Well, then I’ll be your first one!

    I know I’ll be saying things about the movie and main characters with which you will disagree based on your review, but please just let me say what I want to say. I saw Private Lessons for the first time last May, and when I read the synopsis at first, I was disgusted by its concept of an older woman having a sexual affair with a teenaged boy since I was already grossed out by how it was done in That’s My Boy, mainly because it portrays things like child molestation, pedophilia, and statutory in such an exaggeratedly comic light!

    However, while I still don’t condone such things being portrayed in films in such an over-the-top, comical manner, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Private Lessons was much tamer and lighter, or rather, far less disturbing, than I thought it would be with the nudity and sexual content, at least it is when you compare it to That’s My Boy. In terms of the story and relationship between the main characters, I would also say it is a more decent film (decent enough, anyway) than Eric’s Brown next film They’re Playing with Fire. (I’ll get to reviewing that film next.)

    Now I don’t love or really even like Private Lessons because of its concept of an older woman having intercourse with an underage teen boy. For that reason, it’s not a great movie, but I don’t think it’s an outright terrible movie, either. It’s a film I can tolerate despite the relationship and despite it being a sex comedy because I feel that Philly and Nicole are decent, likable characters, largely based on their individual moralities, and their feelings for each other become genuine. Additionally, unlike the Emmanuelle films and other popular sex comedies of the 80s, Private Lessons is not explicit, as in like a pornographic film, with nudity and sex scenes. It’s not a film that has comedy stretched to a preposterous degree to generate laughter, but it actually has moments of drama and even attempts to show the development of a romance between the main characters.

    Nicole is reluctant to seduce Philly from Lester’s orders for their blackmail scheme, but even as she begins and continues to entice him in each succeeding scene, her advances are gentle, slow, and subtle. She never brutally forces anything on Philly, but rather constantly asks for his consent and permission before doing something, showing that she doesn’t want to make him totally uncomfortable and still respects his personal space. As a result, Philly shows maturity by always being kind to Nicole and developing a respect for her, too. When she sees how much she has scared Philly by faking her death, Nicole shows more morality by not wanting to go through with the plan anymore, but also because she has fallen in love with Philly.

    So again, I’m not a fan of Private Lessons since it does kind of romanticize female predators against underage males, but I have come to tolerate it because it is not an explicit, exaggeratedly, or grossly funny sex comedy, and also because Philly and Nicole develop genuine feelings for each other through an affair in which no adultery is involved. Given all that, I do not feel the same way in terms of what happens in That’s My Boy and They’re Playing with Fire, so I have a lot more contempt for those movies.

  2. It’s pretty much what teen boys went thru back then. Having been one myself. Older “girls” succumbed to my charms rather easily before I even knew what i was doing and lost my virginity to a teen girl. The awkwardness he experiences is pretty relatable to how it takes some momentum for a teen boy to finally be ready for sex.
    Sneaking into the TV room to watch these forbidden titles on cable was what teen boys did in the 80s. So this movie would have been right there in that time frame for viewing by teen boys.
    Earth Wind & Fire was huge then as well and it’s surprising their music is featured a few times during this one.
    I’m not going to judge the movie from today’s culturally neutering mentality.
    Boys looked at Penthouses/playboys then and maybe they should be sneaking dad’s magazines today instead of cutting off their dicks.
    Philly still being a naive virgin at 15 is on point with the tines back then.
    I dated a record store gal who was 20 when I was 16. My 1st was 2 years older. Etc…
    It’s clearly a fascination teen boys legitimately experienced during that time.
    I wouldn’t call the movie bad or terrible. That’s for Black Panther or Terrifier, both awful movies with terrible plotting for a generation of people leaving their brains outside.
    It it, however, written as though the experience happened to someone involved in the writing wish a dash of plot reasons.
    You went to great lengths to write paragraph after paragraph about the movie that no one read but that one guy above me.
    Good luck with that negativity.

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