Thanks to Jennifer Connelly, the Career Opportunities poster has been turning heads for 30 years… starting with the head of its leading man, Frank Whaley. “I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in L.A. and there’s that poster on a billboard above the Roxbury Nightclub,” the actor and director tells Yahoo Entertainment about the first time he saw the one-sheet for the 1991 John Hughes-written comedy in the wild. “I almost crashed the car — I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! That thing was enormous, and had my stupid, smiling face on it. I was like, ‘Holy s***.’” According to Hunt Lowry, who produced Career Opportunities with Hughes, that’s precisely the reaction the studio hoped to inspire when the movie arrived in theaters on March 29, 1991. “That poster, it popped,” Lowry says in a separate interview. “It became a star unto itself. I remember seeing it at the time and saying, ‘Wow, this is something.’ It caught everyone’s eye, I can tell you that.”
Despite being the star of the movie, Whaley is well-aware that he’s not the one turning heads, and nearly crashing cars, on the poster. Instead, all eyes are immediately drawn to his co-star, who is perched above him in the poster image, wearing a revealing white tank top that’s also prominently featured in the movie. Interestingly, though, Whaley doesn’t remember Connelly wearing that specific shirt when Universal Studios photographed them together for the poster. “That was added later, I think,” he says, suggesting that the studio cut-and-pasted Connelly’s plunging neckline into the image after the fact. “I don’t think anyone would have gone for that in the photo session. I do remember being at the studio, and they took pictures of us in various poses and that was definitely one of them.”
Even before it was immortalized on the movie’s poster, Whaley remembers being taken aback by Connelly’s provocative costume when they filmed Career Opportunities together over weeks of night shoots in a Target department store in Decatur, Ga. “I was really surprised,” he says now. “I think they could have gone a long way without that element. Jennifer is such an incredibly gifted actress, and has such a great presence, I don’t think they really needed that. But that’s the direction they decided to go in. And its iconic, for sure: I’ve signed my name on a lot of those posters.”
In the film, which was directed by Bryan Gordon, Whaley and Connelly play a pair of high school graduates who come from wildly different backgrounds, but share the same dream of finding a way out of their dead-end town and away from their overbearing families. When working class Jim (Whaley) gets a job as the nighttime custodian of the local Target, he discovers that his former crush, upper crust Josie (Connelly), also stayed in the store after-hours, working up the courage to shoplift supplies for her one-way trip to Los Angeles. Over the course of one long night in each other’s company, they drop their emotional guards and reveal their inner selves… when they’re also not fighting off a pair of bumbling crooks (played by real-life brothers, Dermot and Kieran Mulroney) who decide to break in. It’s like The Breakfast Club meets Home Alone — which had opened in theaters three months earlier, and became Hughes’s biggest-ever hit — albeit with a bombshell brunette in place of a pint-sized Rube Goldberg-in-training.
Connelly was 19 years old when she filmed Career Opportunities and in the midst of transitioning out of the teenage roles — like Jim Henson’s 1986 favorite, Labyrinth — that defined the first phase of her career. Prior to starring opposite Whaley, she played a small-town femme fatale alongside Don Johnson in the Dennis Hopper-directed thriller, The Hot Spot, which featured her first nude scene. And while Career Opportunities is strictly PG-13, Josie is acutely aware of her sexuality. Early on in the film, she aggressively flirts with two of her father’s business colleagues in a successful attempt to infuriate him. And during the movie’s climax, Josie distracts the Target bandits by riding a coin-operated rocking horse — an image that left at least one prominent male film critic, not to mention millions of teenagers, hot and bothered. “I think the male critics and guys in general were a little bit annoyed that I was even in the film,” Whaley says, laughing. “They just wanted to see Jennifer. It was like, ‘Why is this guy talking? I want to see more of her!’”
If Connelly ever felt uncomfortable about performing those kinds of hyper-sexualized moments, she didn’t express such feelings to Whaley or Lowry. “I don’t know how she feels about it now,” Whaley says of his co-star, who went on to win her first Oscar a decade after Career Opportunities for the 2001 drama, A Beautiful Mind. “She has nothing to be ashamed of: She’s really great in the movie and, like all of us, she’s had a very eclectic and wonderful career since. That was just a different period of time.” Adds Lowry: “She knew the part — she just got it. When you’re working with young actors like this, they have such a maturity about themselves and what the role is. And what’s great about Jennifer is that she’s a beauty inside and out: As corny as it sounds, she just glowed. We didn’t have to over-accentuate it: It was just there and natural and real.”
Apart from Connelly, reviewers at the time had few positive things to say about Career Opportunities, with Roger Ebert summing up the majority opinion by calling it “long at 80 minutes,” while also making sure to add that “Jennifer Connelly is very beautiful to look at.” (On the other hand, Gene Siskel give it a thumb’s up and compared it favorably to George Lucas’s 1972 coming-of-age classic, American Graffiti.) The film also failed to score Home Alone or Breakfast Club numbers at the box office, grossing only $11 million during its theatrical run. Whaley says that Hughes himself wasn’t a fan of the film, and at one point heard rumors that he tried to have his name taken off prior to release. For his part, Lowry says that the prolific writer, director and producer was “supportive” of the movie. “He wanted all of his films to be as good as they could be.” (Hughes died in 2009.)
Thanks in no small part to that iconic poster, though, Career Opportunities eventually found a second life, and a very real fanbase, as a Blockbuster Video staple. It’s also been in regular rotation on various cable movie channels and streaming services over the past three decades. (The film is currently streaming on Tubi, and will debut on Blu-ray on June 22 courtesy of Kino Lorber.) Seen again — or for the first time — now, its flaws are readily apparent, but the virtues are also apparent, starting with Whaley’s unique take on the typical Hughes hero.
As written, Jim has Ferris Bueller’s gift for gab, but you can bet that Matthew Broderick’s preternaturally gifted B.S. artist would end up running that Target, not cleaning it. “He’s sort of Ferris Bueller without the bravado,” says Whaley, who remembers winning the role over a bevy of young actors, including future Sports Night star, Josh Charles and — believe it or not — Pauly Shore. “He’s kind of a sad-sack loser who can’t keep a job. Ferris was destined to become Elon Musk, and even Ducky would be a CEO or a rockstar. But Jim doesn’t have a lot going for him except a lot of empty bulls***. And I knew what I was getting into in terms of the challenges there: to make that kind of likable and funny.”
Josie, meanwhile, bears a passing resemblance to Molly Ringwald’s Breakfast Club character as the resident popular girl who isn’t as perfect as her classmates assume. But it’s revealed during the course of the movie that she shares more in common with Emilio Estevez’s jock, masking her father’s history of abuse by acting out. Whaley says that he filmed screen tests opposite multiple actresses, including Teri Polo, who went on to star in Meet the Parents. “We screen-tested a few actresses, like you do,” Lowry confirms. “There were two or three that really stood out, but Jennifer was perfect for the role. She got the nuance and the humor of it, and also understood that these two people might be falling in love, but aren’t quite sure what their next steps are going to be.”
By the end of the film, those “next steps” have carried Jim and Josie out of their small town and away from their families, a marked departure from the teen movies of that era, including those written by Hughes, that frequently concluded by reinforcing the idea that home is where the heart is. According to Whaley, Hughes was largely hands-off during production, only coming by the set when John Candy filmed his cameo as the Target manager who hires Jim. Lowry says that the writer’s absence was due to the fact that he was juggling multiple projects at the time, including Only the Lonely — a Chris Columbus-directed drama starring… John Candy. “He and John had that kind of relationship,” the producer says of Hughes and Candy’s multi-film collaboration, which stretched back to Hughes’s 1983 breakthrough, National Lampoon’s Vacation. “They were really great together.”
Without Hughes around, Whaley says that he, Connelly and Gordon felt the freedom to invent character and narrative beats. “With due respect to John Hughes, the script was a little thing,” he remembers. “There was a lot of, ‘Jim runs around the store, going nuts.’” Arriving in Decatur prior to production, the director and his stars spent a lot of time inside the Target store filling in those gaps, devising bits of business like a midnight roller skating session and impromptu dance parties. “The only restriction they had was that we couldn’t bring any props inside that weren’t available in Target,” Whaley says. “Other than that, we could film in there from four in the afternoon until six in the morning, and I just remember having a blast. A lot of that stuff was improvised: That’s actually me playing the drums, for example. Enough time has passed, so I won’t be prosecuted, but I walked out of there with so much stuff! CDs were brand new and I was grabbing them left and right. Everybody on my Christmas list got Target stuff that year.”
Even though they were left to their own devices, the studio — and Hughes — still made it clear they had final say over what ultimately appeared in theaters. Whaley remembers that one of his ideas was summarily rejected early on during production. “I had a pompadour hairstyle with a little spit curl that came done in front to give Jim this kind of eccentric 1950s feel. But someone at the studio decided, ‘Why is he wearing his hair that way? That’s ridiculous.’ So Bryan came up to me and said, ‘We have to figure out some way for you not to have that curl anymore.’ I think it was written out in the scene with John Candy: He tells me, ‘Lose the curl.’ That’s just an example of how involved they all were. I’m sure there were some hard feelings between Bryan and Hughes and the studio, but I loved working with him and he went on to do great work over the years.” (Gordon declined to be interviewed for this article.)
As Lowry recalls, Hughes got more hands-on with the movie after Gordon delivered his initial cut. “He knew there was work that was needed, and went back and wrote additional scenes to give to Bryan. That’s what was great about John as a filmmaker: Whenever there was work that needed to be done to make something better, he would do it.” Whaley remembers that the new scenes were largely devoted to playing down the storyline with the robbers and playing up the evolving bond between Jim and Josie. “The reshoots got back to the root of the film, which was that dynamic between Jennifer and I,” he says. “They laid off the Home Alone craziness and made it more about the two of us talking about our lives and stuff. That’s the stuff that young people can relate to, and I think it brought it a long way to being a better film.”
In fact, Whaley has often contemplated the version of Career Opportunities that Hughes might have written post-Pretty in Pink instead of post-Home Alone. “I love Dermot and Kieran, but I wonder what the movie would have been like without that sort of buffoonery and silliness,” he muses. “At its core, Career Opportunities had a really interesting character dynamic between the two completely different viewpoints of those two main characters. I think it got a little bit convoluted by having too many voices trying to make too many different types of films, which is a common story. But underneath all the flaws is something really good and fun. I’ll always be proud of it.”
Career Opportunities is currently streaming on Tubi and will be released on Blu-ray on June 22.
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