If MANNEQUIN is So Bad, Why Have You Seen it So Many Times? My Spirited Defense of a Humpback Classic!

By James Kenney

To shoot a film about not just abiding but embracing what would be considered an “alternative lifestyle,” what better location than Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, where the Declaration of Independence, a document about escaping unjust oppression, was signed.  Well, before you get too smug, nodding sagely “ahh, yes, he’s speaking of Jonathan Demme’s 1992 classic Philadelphia, the first Hollywood film to address the AIDS crisis and its effect especially on the gay community,” you’re mistaken.

 A film beat Demme to the punch in its call for empathy, for understanding, for supporting lifestyles that hurt no one else, a film encouraging every viewer to be themselves, not caring what anyone thinks, and its makers chose the symbolically potent city of Philadelphia as its location.

Yes, that film is the 1987 screwball comedy Mannequin, starring Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall, which most of you insist is no good, yet have seen 13 times. 

“This is a movie made by, for and about dummies. It’s a lowest-common-denominator, consumer-age comedy concerning a window dresser’s after-hours affair with a department store mannequin.” –Rita Kempley, Washington Post 10-08-87

Ouch. Yet this film that received a “Bomb” rating from Leonard Maltin made approximately 42 million dollars, which adjusted for inflation would be over 100 million today, spawned a sequel, and has been released multiple times through the years first on VHS, then laser-disc, then DVD, and Blu-Ray.  For an “awful film, ” which it is not, it sure has had an enduring shelf-life. I bet some of you will curse yourselves as you do, but you will throw it on for the 82nd time after reading this piece.

Not surprisingly, estimable Chicago Tribune critic Dave Kehr, while not liking the film, did look at it a bit more deeply than most, sensing some surprising undercurrents beneath its frantic surface:

Mannequin,” a first feature by a young director named Michael Gottlieb, borrows its theme from the supernatural romances Hollywood turned out during and after World War II. Like “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “Down to Earth” and, most specifically, “One Touch of Venus… [Coming] from beyond to be a boy’s private property (only McCarthy can see her), [Cattrall] is E.T. with good legs. And as “E.T.” did, “Mannequin” endorses a turning away from the world, a withdrawal from human relations into private reveries and solitary pleasures. In its own way, “Mannequin” is a forlorn, even depressive film that posits loneliness as the basic condition of adolescent existence and fantasy as the only escape…still, Gottlieb strains to keep the surface bright and bouncy, dropping in farcical subplots, rock video montage sequences and car chases whenever the pace threatens to fall below the level of screaming hysteria.”

One reason Mannequin endures is that it is clumsy, but it is also agreeable, well-acted, and has a theme that can be seen as subversive in that it showcases a handsome, white heterosexual couple at its center, but its interest in and recognition of alternative lifestyles cannot be understated.

McCarthy is an Everyday Joe, but while someone might say it isn’t brave casting, it’s the point.  There’s drama in tension, and the tension is in the ostensibly ordinary and presentable McCarthy not fitting in with “regular” society; then when finding a home, “after dark” with fellow “freak” Hollywood, a flamboyant openly homosexual person of color, he initially has anxiety acknowledging he belongs in this world, until he gives in, resulting in his dancing and singing and role playing around the department store he’s employed in as a window dresser with his favorite mannequin.

What “square” could begrudge him embracing his desire when its manifested by the incredible Kim Cattrall as this mannequin, who only comes to life for him?

Hollywood, played by Meshach Taylor, is an appealing character, misunderstood by some.  I think sensitive well-meaning types might be quick to see him as a stereotype, the flamboyant gay best friend; as Janet Maslin, not irrationally, wrote in her New York Times review “Several of those stock characters play upon racial and sexual stereotypes, and a few are drawn along obnoxiously homophobic lines. One screamingly effeminate store employee drives a pink Cadillac with a license plate that reads BAD GIRL.”  

However, the film imagines him as its moral center – it’s his acceptance of McCarthy, not the other way around, that clearly spells out that McCarthy’s personal choices are to be supported, not just accepted. When McCarthy insists that he’s “normal,” that Emmy the mannequin is really a girl, Hollywood responds “Don’t disappoint me.” 

He’s the most charming and affable character in the film, and the press materials describe him as “develop[ing] his own flamboyant style for coping in the modern world.”  The 1980s were a time that was determinedly “modern” and “cutting edge,” yet Mannequin recognizes there are people in the margins who were not a part of the whole MTV, Miami Vice dayglow world taking over, and the press release describes “Jonathan, Emmy…and Hollywood” as fight[ing] to defend tradition and good taste against all that is crass and vulgar in consumer society”; the film has the “straights” personified by James Spader and Carol Davis (as Jonathan’s initial girlfriend) as the representatives of crass and vulgar, not Hollywood.

As the late Taylor said at the time: “Hollywood is no fool. He certainly has a sense of style, and he’s always had a sense of self.” Noting his character’s friendship with Jonathan, who’s carrying on a romance with a wooden mannequin, Taylor said “they accept each other’s weirdness.” I can comprehend some criticism of the portrayal, but I think the issue might be people’s own discomfort with the character’s flamboyance, not anything problematic in the film’s representation of his flamboyance – the film accepts him unreservedly and never asks Hollywood to explain or defend himself.

G.W. Bailey’s store watchman Felix, armed with his attack dog Wilson, is the face of prejudice in the film, and he’s not some supervillain. He’s a plodder, who in a moment that probably could be toned down a bit, makes offensive comments about Hollywood to Jonathan. But the film doesn’t let him get away with it; McCarthy, whose Blaine couldn’t stand up for Molly Ringwald’s Andie in Pretty in Pink when James Spader’s rich boy Steff calls her trash, here does not hesitate in dressing down Bailey for his derogatory, senseless comments.

Hollywood has Jonathan’s back, and Jonathan has Hollywood’s back.

Okay, it’s no Philadelphia, but in some ways it’s more effective to catch someone off the elbow than jam a fist down someone’s throat, and it seems funny in a film as unsubtle as Mannequin to accuse it of delicacy.  But it doesn’t make a big deal about its message of tolerance and embracing your true self, but we understand it nonetheless. 

And by “we” I mean impressionable youth, who, of course, with McCarthy hot off of Pretty in Pink and St. Elmos’s Fire, were the greater part of the film’s estimable audience upon first release and shortly after on home video.  I have no doubt among its millions of viewers were individuals who didn’t know anyone like Hollywood, but before long were cheering as Hollywood comes to the rescue, saving Jonathan and Emmy and being best man at their closing-credit wedding.

So “in the end” McCarthy and Cattrall are a “traditional couple,” yes, decent white boy, beautiful white woman, uniting in wedded bliss, but they have had to live in the shadows, a vampire’s existence, and then fight for their right to exist once exposed to get to this happy ending. The film is unquestionably on the side of the “weirdos,” and its neat trick for drawing audiences in is having the conventionally attractive McCarthy and Cattrall somehow manifest this weirdness.

Smartly, the film is never, really, about “shame”; Hollywood quickly embraces Jonathan’s love for “wood,” as he only sees McCarthy in various odd positions with the reverted-to-mannequin Emmy, in a “live and let live” attitude that certainly wasn’t necessarily a given in amped-up 1980s Hollywood. In its own sloppily executed way, Mannequin is dedicated to the idea of art unrestrained by commerce; Jonathan is an aspiring artist whose pursuit of his esthetic ideal gets him fired from a series of menial jobs, and only when left to his own devices and muse, manifested by Cattrall’s mannequin, does he achieve this ideal.

Michael Gottleib’s direction is frequently clumsy. He’s not very graceful staging slapstick, some of the film’s ideas are pretty dumb, the music video montage sequences of Jonathan and Emmy cringeworthy other than affording us to see Cattrall in a series of striking get ups (a part of the role that she appreciated but more on that later). But he does swiftly get us comfortable with the baroque idea of the film and rooting for the film’s leads, and there are laughs to be had.  

Gottlieb apparently got Mannequin’s idea walking down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue when he thought he saw a mannequin move in the window of Bergdorf Goodman. Developing the script with friend Ed Rugoff, he concocted a story about “a person learning to trust himself. Jonathan is a beaten down guy…suddenly he meets a very mysterious woman who, with her kindness, goodness and a zest for life, teaches him not to be afraid.” While his execution of his script is uncertain, his casting decisions were spot on.

McCarthy had a quality of “outsider looking in” he used well in his 80s successes Heaven Help Us, St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Less than Zero and this, as I examined in my recent review of his autobiography.  Gottlieb saw him as the ideal embodiment of “the innocent guy doing the best he can.” He is a good surrogate figure in that he’s immediately likeable and non-threatening, with “normal” good looks, yet the parts McCarthy excelled in generally felt a bit damaged and eccentric – as all on earth can relate to feeling we don’t quite fit in, whatever our lot in life, McCarthy in his uncertainty speaks to us, and is a good vessel through which to take Mannequin’s journey. 

He quickly embraces Hollywood as his best friend, not to mention the mannequin as his lover, and turns his back on a relationship that isn’t all that bad, really. His girlfriend Roxie (played by This is Spinal Tap’s Carol Davis)  is attractive, sane, upwardly mobile, and only nags him a little about getting some focus and drive in his life – she is really not an braying horror show as she might have been characterized, which only reinforces the film’s theme that perfectly reasonable life choices may not be meant for you if your destiny is something else. 

As McCarthy himself said at the time, Jonathan’s a “young guy who knows he will be good someday. But he’s just one step out of beat with everything.  In the film he becomes the straight man for everyone else.”

As for Cattrall, she spent the better part of the 80s giving her all to silly projects such as Porky’s, Police Academy, this, and, of course, playing Gracie Law in John Carpenter’s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China; one reason guys like me adored her so much is she wasn’t only strikingly beautiful; she seemed a good sport to put up with all of this. 

She was also already established as a serious actress, having just finished her run on Broadway in Michael Frayn’s farcical Chekhov adaptation Wild Honey, opposite Ian McKellan.  While no doubt Emmy the mannequin is a fantasy construct, Cattrall can’t help but be strong and communicate acumen, while never once looking down on the material. 

“When Michael brought the script to me,” Cattrall said in the film’s promo materials, “he described the role of Emmy as a ‘Peter Pan, E.T. fantasy figure.’ I found her the personification of love and kindness. Emmy is a wonderful role for me, because I get to wear lots of beautiful clothes and put on wigs, I get to dance and sing, and I get to fly – the best part is that I get to fly. The role is really an actress’s dream.”  She discussed at the time of release the difficulty in transitioning from theater to film: “I had to learn to not think about the camera. It’s the most eerie feeling to have that eye constantly looking at you. The camera is a very elusive instrument. But I don’t think stage acting is superior to film. It can be equally demanding. I have great respect for the craftspeople in movies.”

Golden Girls‘s Estelle Getty as Claire Trimkin, Prince & Co.’s benevolent owner, is also a bit of a fantasy construct – the eccentric millionairess who’s kind to her employees, doesn’t want to sell out her store for the biggest profit, and rewards good-hearted underlings, but, hey, it’s a movie about a mannequin who comes to life.  She’s a good “feisty granny.” As she said of the character, “Mr’s  Trimkin is a liberated, somewhat dippy lady who is also very shrewd.” Getty thought the part of herself she brought to the role was her “free spirit.”

In a masterstroke, the still ascending James Spader somehow got cast in this as McCarthy’s nemesis, and perhaps perceiving the film was kind of daft, went full character-actor mode, suppressing the good looks he used for sinister effect in Pretty in Pink for a bespectacled caricature with thick glasses and exaggerated mannerisms. 

An intense actor, Spader did speak of his way into the role in the press materials, and his take on the character is interesting (and is borne out on screen): “I see Richards as a kind of tragic guy. He’s one of those people stomped on all his life. He’s always a day late, a dollar short. Though he’s never had a dime, he’s not good at being cunning. I pictured him as being in his late 20s going on 58, a rodent old before his time.”

This reading suggests Richards and Jonathan’s foil, in that both are “losers” in the game of life, but Jonathan, by accepting what’s inside of himself and just focusing on love and honesty, gets it all, while Richards, desperately trying to rise in the “crass and vulgar consumer society,” is “30 going on 60.” Interestingly, the film doesn’t really punish any of its villains; their plans don’t work, but it’s a sign of the film’s open heartedness that Spader isn’t turned into a mannequin or something. The rest of the cast don’t feel any need for vengeance or anything, he’s no real threat once their secret is revealed.

Spader’s interests were listed as “eclectic” in the film’s press materials. He “reads Faulkner and Le Carre, likes all kinds of music, particularly blues, jazz and rock, and travels by car often across America. ‘Cars are the pure personification of the American Dream. What makes me happy is fresh pasta and a full tank of gas and listening to the Grateful Dead play ‘Franklin’s Tower.’”

I wonder if he’s still a Dead fan.

G.W. Bailey’s security guard, Felix, is a bit more irritating as he’s a bigoted plodder, but on the other hand he’s insufferable without being truly threatening, probably a good balance for what is supposed to be a light romantic comedy. Bailey did make an interesting observation at the time that in some way’s Jonathan’s intrusion into the department store was an interruption of Felix’s own nightly life of fantasy: “With his dog, uniform, and medals, he’s having a lot of fun in his own world. To him, Jonathan is the villain. But then Felix is a bit slow on the uptake.”

Gottlieb’s directorial touch is not graceful enough to have the film really work on the surface as the classic screwball comedy he’s aspiring to, but his aspirations are admirable, touching even, and the film is so eccentric, so bizarre, even, that it works despite essential deficiencies in its execution. Some of its comedy set pieces, like when Jonathan gets hung up an huge store sign that almost falls and kills Claire in their “meet cute” scene that gets him the job, are botched, but the basic premise is stimulating and Taylor and McCarthy and Cattrall so personable, you just shrug and wait for the stuff that does work (McCarthy in his autobiography does admit to being exceptionally hung-over as he kept swinging back and forth for this sequence, which probably didn’t help).

As McCarthy says in his book, just like most of this film’s, ahem, “closet” fans, he doesn’t want to admit to having any real connection to Mannequin, but then does anyway: “If I’m to speak the truth, I hold the movie in a special place of affection…There was an innocence about it, and an open heart.” McCarthy’s major issue with the film was having to drive a motorcycle, and points out that director Gottlieb, who loved them, later died riding one. I also can’t stand motorcycles, but if I’m to live by the message of Mannequin, who am I to tell Gottlieb how to live or die?

As for the city of brotherly love: the film began shooting on March 17, 1986 in Philadelphia, using the venerable department store John Wanamaker’s as its primary location.  There for over a century, the location offered among other amenities a seven-story atrium used throughout the film.  The cast and crew filmed there nightly, six days a week; after closing time, the crew would come in, unrolling cable, pushing in arc lights, setting down dolly tracks so that they could begin filming by 7 pm. Mannequin also filmed in Rittenhouse Square, Center City and along the Schuykill River. The production crew also converted a warehouse into a soundstage for additional filming of the Egyptian Tomb sequence that begins the film (don’t worry, the film gets better after this sequence!) and some duplicates of the Wanamaker store windows. There was some final Los Angeles shooting for the early scene of McCarthy working in a mannequin factory where he puts together his ideal mannequin, which becomes Emmy.

When Paul Annastasio, in his review at the time of release, described the film as “a movie of nearly thrilling obviousness” I think he meant it as an insult, but it works as a compliment in this case. Once you realize what the movie is doing, you allow it sweep you into what Kehr posited as a troubling aspect of the film but I feel actually is what is most beguiling about it: the film is about the secret precincts of our mind, the places we go that would mortify us if someone could see them; they are given shape and scope in Mannequin; Jonathan Switcher is all of us, straight, gay, trans, fetishist, whatever; he just wants to be who he is, and has to go through steps – denial, wary acceptance, to “coming out” (and finding a sympathetic community, seen here in Hollywood) to living his true life and fighting for it if need be.

Kehr is right in stating the film “posits loneliness” as the human condition; that’s one of the good things about it, that gives the quite silly Mannequin strange weight, substance. 

But I don’t think the film is saying “fantasy is the only escape,” as Kehr puts it, it’s saying you have to be true to yourself, and recognize the humanity in all, whether it’s Jonathan with his  seeming weird fetish, Hollywood with his outsized, uncompromising life, or anyone who wants to, I don’t know, sing opera or draw comics or identify with a gender they were not technically born with. If you’re not hurting anyone, who cares? Society certainly shouldn’t.

This is Mannequin’s worthy theme, and most likely the key reason the film was a huge success and still beloved (you heard me) 35 years after its release despite all of mankind professing hostility to it.  It’s a strange, warm, film, and Cattrall, Taylor, McCarthy and Spader do elevate it with their committed-to-the-bit performances. I’m a loud and proud admirer of Mannequin.

One thought on “If MANNEQUIN is So Bad, Why Have You Seen it So Many Times? My Spirited Defense of a Humpback Classic!

  1. Thanks for writing this! I loved Mannequin as an oddball child, but I was not able to express why it resonated with me. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that there are other fans out there until I read Andrew McCarthy’s autobiography. Have you listened to Rob Lowe’s podcast when he was a guest? A.M. mentioned that he can immediately tell which movie (St. Elmo’s vs Zero vs Bernie’s vs Mannequin) is a person’s favorite when he is approached by a fan. So apparently there are enough Mannequin fans for him to form a stereotype. I also liked Matt Baume’s Youtube video essay which explored how Mannequin was rather forward-thinking in its positive portrayal of gay people back in 1987 and highlighted Hollywood’s role as a gay hero:

    Liked by 1 person

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