Private Lessons (1981) – A Review

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 Kristal). 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 Sylvia seemingly dies during one of their ‘private lessons’, Philly enlists the help of Lester who buries Sylvia’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 Sylvia 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. In the end Philly and Sylvia 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 Sylvia 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.

Sylvia Kristal undressing Private Lessons
A private lesson behind closed doors

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 Sylvia 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.

Although Sylvia 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.

Private Lessons Sylvia Kristal older woman
Eric Brown’s Philly has his hands full

Personally, I don’t find Kristal attractive so the seduction scenes were kind of lost on me anyway. She might have beenn 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 Sylvia and Philly and they came up with this ridiculous storyline. I felt it even more frustrating that the only fallout is that Sylvia leaves. Lester even keeps his job after what he tried to pull? Pretty stupid.

The comedy in this situation….is nonexitstent. 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.

The most surprising thing to me was learning Jan DeBont was the cinematographer on this film. Go figure.

Private Lessons 1981
Sylvia Kristal and Eric Brown

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. And 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 Sylvia 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.

Watching 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.

Private Lessons Sylvia Kristal Eric BrownI 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 ’81 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’s gotta be better than this.



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