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Mannequin (1987)

Dummy for Love

Watching Mannequin for the first time in twenty-five years, I realized two things:

1. Michael Gottlieb's film is part of my pop-culture DNA. Too young to see it in theatres, I recorded blocks of VH1 programming just to capture Jefferson Starship's video for "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now"--a prototypical 80s promo piece that's just as much a sizzle reel as it is another way to put the song on potential audiences' radar. When Mannequin hit home video, I begged my parents to rent it and, in the wee hours of some nondescript weekend, I held my tape recorder up to our TV set's speaker to save the best bits to listen to over and over again later on.

I was a very weird fourth-grader.

2. My wife prefers the sequel, 1991's Mannequin: On the Move. We're very close to locking down a specialized relationship-counseling service.

That's a ham-handed way of saying that it's hard for me to look at Mannequin objectively. Revisiting it the other night, I remembered everything, but picked up on a lot that age and era would have prevented me from appreciating. On the surface, Gottlieb and co-writer Edward Rugoff's screenplay is about an Egyptian princess named Emmy (Kim Cattrall) whose wish for something greater than an arranged marriage sends her bouncing through time. She serves as a muse to historical figures like Michelangelo and Christopher Columbus, before appearing as a mannequin created by struggling Philadelphia sculptor Jonathan Switcher (Andrew McCarthy).

The chronically unemployed Jonathan lands a job at Prince and Company, a failing department store run by the feisty Claire Timkin (Estelle Getty). She and her board are close to accepting a terrible offer from the ultra-hip, ultra-douchey Illustra across town, when Jonathan and Emmy begin creating innovative window displays during the night shift. Foot traffic increases, and Illustra's owner, B.J. Wert (Stephen Vinovich) plots to steal Jonathan away from the competition. Throw in James Spader as wormy Illustra mole, Mr. Richards; G.W. Bailey as shell-shocked bigot/security guard, Felix; and Jonathan's ex-girlfriend/Illustra executive, Roxie (Carole Davis), and you have a potentially over-crowded display of plots, sub-plots, and oh-so-80s clothing montages set to sugary, off-brand pop tunes.

Luckily, Mannequin is as smooth as a dummy's thigh, briskly hitting all its points in a fun and borderline campy ninety minutes. During one particularly enthusiastic dance number, my wife asked if she thought Catrall would be embarrassed to look back on this film now. I pointed out that she looks like she's having a genuine blast on screen--and that Sex and the City 2 is a much bigger-boned skeleton in her celluloid closet.

Some aspects of the film are problematic, though, when viewed through modern-adult eyes. First, Jonathan's sidekick is a flamboyant window dresser named Hollywood Montrose (Meshach Taylor). Depending on your sensibilities, you may find this an offensive or empowering portrayal of gay men. Hollywood sashays and snaps and yells theatrically while wearing outfits that make Liberace look like a Tea Partier. On the other hand, he’s successful, loyal, and above the criticisms of anyone who would dare say snide things to his face. Hollywood is a template for personalities one might see judging America’s Next Top Model—but that doesn’t necessarily clarify the stereotyping issue.

Second, Gottlieb and Rugoff’s handling of women in the corporate environment tends towards extremes that are cringe-worthy and exciting. Between B.J. and a slimy underling named Armand (Christopher Maher), Roxie’s co-workers are a sexual-harassment suit waiting to happen. The slime-balls’ advances and power plays are presented as jokes, but it’s hard to watch this handful of scenes without mentally vomiting a bit (or a lot).

Across town, the Prince and Company board is chaired by a happy, hard-working woman. The motion to stop the store’s sale to Illustra is proposed by a woman and seconded by a man. Prince and Company operates in a spirit of equality, rather than dominance: women winning doesn’t mean men that men have to lose. These scenes feel ahead of their time and, sadly, ahead of present day in terms of how women of power are portrayed in a lot of mainstream entertainment.

Which brings me to Mannequin’s greatest contradiction. I couldn’t have picked up on this at age ten, but Emmy’s story is that of a cosmic glass ceiling, wrapped in an innocent comedy about an artist and his muse. Emmy’s adventures through time, at least as we’re told, center on inspiring male artists, while perpetually falling short of her own creative dreams. Spoiler Alert: she finds true love with Jonathan and is granted permission by the gods to stay put in late-80s Philly.

But there’s something unsettling about the notion of her being a movable desire object whose fate is inextricably (and inexplicably) tied to a man; she essentially traded one arranged marriage for dozens of others, and her happy ending seems purely incidental. This lends the film an insidious undercurrent of submission, despite its lead female character’s ostensible representation of adventure and creativity.

I may be the only one walking away from Mannequin with this baggage. It’s possible that anyone who hasn’t seen it yet will be so caught up in James Spader’s squirrelly, scheming scene-chewing as to make all other considerations moot. There’s also the matter of Andrew McCarthy’s perpetually exasperated voice, which sounds uncannily like Bobcat Goldthwait’s schtick, but let’s leave that for the next quarter-century discussion.

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