Can a common clerk and former sculptor find true happiness with the department store mannequin he has created? In the whack-tac-u-lar 1980’s, it seemed anything was possible; what, with Spielberg’s effervescent child-like aliens and whip-cracking adventurers running amuck at the box office; to say nothing of George Lucas’ intergalactic franchise fantasy – Star Wars still going strong, and, Roger Moore’s tongue-in-cheek incarnation of Bond…James Bond filling theater seats; audiences were in for one hell of a good time. And yet, only in retrospect, was it the most unlikely, and as unanticipated, reversals of fortune. A decade earlier, Hollywood had hit the panic button once too often and rock bottom more times than it cared to admit; facing skyrocketing costs (even a modest movie cost $10 million to produce) in tandem with anemic dividends; the audience, seemingly tired of going to the movies. In the 80’s this concern would segue to reluctance on the part of industry insiders to support ‘home video’ (then, an entirely new format) as a viable viewing option…that is, until the industry suddenly realized it could reap even greater rewards from this burgeoning phenomenon. But in 1980, the sting and pall of the still expiring movie culture reached its tipping point at a whopping $36 million with the cataclysmic failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. The unthinkable had occurred. One movie had wiped out an entire studio: and not just any, but the venerable United Artists: then, considered the last bastion for creative freedom. “We are supporting a dying business,” director, Paul Schrader speculated in the trades, “…and the changes are very scary.”
Yet, if envy and avarice continued as Hollywood’s most enduring and perennial partnership, then at least in the 80’s the money men were to rediscover fiscal satisfaction making movies the public wanted to see, and, on a grand and surprisingly diverse scale, fostering the sort of bigger-than-life, glossy and star-studded extravaganzas they dared not even attempt since the mid-1950’s. Looking back on the eighties now, one can genuinely admire the chutzpah – nee, guts – to turn this foundering ship around and sail it into port. Part, if not all, of the credit for Hollywood’s rebirth must go to Ronald Reagan. As a former actor, Reagan had witnessed firsthand how government intervention had crippled the film biz in the late 40’s, splintering its ironclad autonomy. Now, as President, he reversed the Consent (Paramount) Decree that had forced studios into a divesture of their formidable array of assets. With this ban lifted, Hollywood could once again absorb and amalgamate the necessary resources for their empires to thrive – and, they wasted absolutely no time in doing so.
In the case of director, Michael Gottlieb’s Mannequin (1987), Gladden Entertainment reached all the way back into Hollywood’s antiquity to the traditional screwball comedy. Here was a tale as remarkable as it proved awkward and silly; all about a time-travelling Egyptian princess, Emmy Hasure (played with lithesome charisma by the sultry Kim Cattrall), reincarnated as a chic department store mannequin, denied her human form to all, except in the presence of her ‘creator’ – sculptor, Jonathan Switcher (Andrew McCarthy). Despite her presence in several movies, Cattrall was not yet a household name. Neither was Andrew McCarthy, although marketing test polls suggested he had the potential to become a star, with considerable appeal already amongst young girls – arguably, this film’s target audience. Nevertheless, with Cattrall, immaculately attired in form-fitting (and occasionally, thread-bare to downright skimpy) costumes created by Lisa Jensen, there was plenty in Mannequin for the male population to savor as well.
Few movies have been as wholesale eviscerated by the critics, yet equally as beloved by fans. Despite – or perhaps because of its whopping success, Mannequin was almost universally panned in reviews; the charge led by Leonard Maltin, who dubbed it “absolute rock-bottom fare, dispiriting for anyone who remembers what movie comedy should be,”; a rank assessment backed by The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, who referred to the movie as “made by, for, and about dummies.” Superficially, Mannequin is a fairly antiseptic addendum to the ultimate male fantasy about finding the perfect woman, presumably subservient to his daydreams and sex fantasies. Post-modern feminism heavily criticized the picture for suggesting this skewed patriarchal view of femininity; coy and infantilized in the spotlight (indeed, Mannequin takes this to the extreme, as Emmy cannot speak for herself – literally – in the presence of others, having shape-shifted by day into an inanimate sculpture of fiberglass and plastic), but an absolute whore in the bedroom – very much ‘flesh and hot-blooded’ between the sheets. There are several opportunities for Cattrall to shed most of her clothes, showing off virtually all of her more obvious accoutrements. Yet, even with all this objectification, Mannequin remains genteel toward the fairer sex: not exactly the man’s story, but instead the classic ‘knight’s errand’ quest for the unattainable; the woman, the seeker, and the man, her prize. Cattrall is a princess from a noble house in ancient Egypt, unwilling to heed her mother’s (Phyllis Newman) advice and marry the most amiable camel dung merchant in town; pleading with the Gods to spare her from this lifetime of mediocrity. Her prayers are effectively answered; a main title cartoon sequence immediately following the prologue, illustrating Emmy’s time-traveling exploits throughout human evolution; bypassing Michelangelo (whom we are told was only interested in ‘David’) and other legendary figures.
Alas, the premise that this woman of culture could find no eternal happiness until she arrived in present-day Philadelphia and became involved with a starving (and generally bumbling) artist; her dreams made whole only as the glamorous, though decidedly immobile ‘creation’ put on public display, literally to be objectified as a mannequin adorning the windows of John Wanamaker’s iconic department store (rechristened Prince & Co. in the movie), is perhaps taking the patriarchy a little too literally and/or seriously. Or is the effect deliberate, the ruse of the film makers an obvious snub, designed to raise the dander of those so inclined to take umbrage with its seemingly tasteless commercialism? Cattrall threw herself into the part, religiously exercising to ‘streamline’ her shapely physique and mimic ‘the norm’ in female mannequin design. Ultimately, six mannequins would be created to represent Emmy in her non-human form, each differing slightly in facial expressions.
Apart from Mannequin’s transparent parallels to 1948’s One Touch of Venus (a sadly underrated musical/comedy about a department store magnet who buys a statue of Venus, miraculously come to life), Gottlieb’s revamp also borrowed from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; infusing his farce with tinges of ‘T’ and ‘A’ and ‘fart jokes’ for which 80’s comedies remain justly – and embarrassingly – famous. Mannequin is a deceptively feather-weight ‘feel good’ to the nth degree. Often energetically, it amuses without assaulting the senses in a delirium devoted to its gimmick – namely, a burgeoning romance between the artist and his muse. Hollywood generally gets a bad rap for being crassly commercial and formulaic, and, I must concede, Mannequin is likely, one of the most grotesquely likable beneficiaries of this fusion; a textbook example of art created for commerce sake, fostered by market researcher extraordinaire, Joseph Farrell, who also served as the movie’s executive producer. Mannequin is built upon an innate understanding of its target demographic – teenagers, what with its pop-tune infested soundtrack, featuring Belinda Carlisle’s ‘In My Wildest Dreams’, Alisha’s ‘Do You Dream About Me’ and Jefferson Starship’s chart-topper, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, the story interwoven between these necessitated breaks into MTV-styled ‘party-on’, are affixed to the greater purpose – to sell tickets and send the audience out with an upbeat championing of the underdog.
Some 27 years later, Mannequin still holds up, largely due to the romantic chemistry between Cattrall and McCarthy and their combined ability to lend credence to this most fantastical fiction: also, the exuberantly over-the-top performance of co-star, Meshach Taylor as gay fashionista and window-dresser, Hollywood Montrose. Personally, I still get little jabs of pleasure observing Taylor’s expressive rainbow in all his animated glory; perennially attired in free-flowing silken robes, sporting a Grace Jones-inspired angular haircut and glasses, tearing away the gauzy wrap from a nearby mannequin to expose her perky plastic breasts, saying, “Jonathan…how about a picture? Mom’ll think I’ve switched!” I am also partial toward the moment where Hollywood confides in Jonathan about his own relationship with “that bitch” Albert, who has informed Hollywood his thighs are too heavy. “I read somewhere about those doctors in Beverly Hills cutting a little hole and sucking those fat cells right out…I wonder if there’s some way you can do it at home…you know, like with a vacuum cleaner or something!” In more recent times, Taylor’s deliciously manic incarnation of an ebullient ‘flamer’ has garnered some fairly harsh criticisms. Alas, political correctness knows no bounds. Whatever happened to an actor accepting the challenge of make-believe on his own terms? Nevertheless, Taylor’s interpretation may have taken effeminate behavior to its extremes. Yet, this does not negate the spirit of Taylor’s overriding joie de vivre, concocting a minor masterpiece of utter flamboyance.
Mannequin could have so easily fallen apart as just another bizarre and idiotic minor spectacle from a decade that, at least in hindsight, seems to have reveled in such escapist nonsense (Splash 1984, Weird Science 1985, Big 1988). Instead, by the end of its opening weekend, Mannequin had already made back its entire outlay of $6 million, and then some; its’ final U.S. tally of $42,721,196, making it an unqualified smash hit for Gladden Entertainment – a company founded by notorious Hollywood bad boy, David Begelman. A former VP at MCA, Begelman, co-founder of Creative Management Associates (a talent agency whose clientele included such heavy-hitters as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Marilyn Monroe and Peter Sellers), moved into a comfortable post as VP in Charge of Production at Columbia Pictures; in 1973, on the brink of financial ruin. Under his auspices, the studio thrived. But in 1977, a falsified $10,000 check, presumably paid to actor, Cliff Robertson, launched an FBI investigation into Begelman’s wheeling and dealing; the net result exposing Begelman as skimming off the top for quite some time - his fingers in a lot of pies. Columbia was on the hook for $65,000 thus far.
Ironically, Begelman’s reputation in Hollywood hardly suffered. In fact, he was quietly reinstated to his former post, then circumspectly ‘relieved’ of his duties after New West Magazine broke the story he had lied about being a Yale graduate when, in fact, had never attended university. Then in 1993, it was unearthed Begelman had misappropriated revenues from The Judy Garland Show – several thousand dollars that ought to have gone to Garland; also, a 1963 Cadillac, made a gift to the star for her various appearances on The Jack Paar Show, winding up titled to Begelman instead. In addition, undisclosed ‘large sums’ were paid out for ‘protection’; virtually all the checks written to cash and endorsed by Begelman at various Las Vegas casinos. Begelman may also have been responsible for a blackmail scheme to defraud Garland of $50,000; hush money she begrudgingly paid to keep rumored nude photos of having her stomach pumped after a drug overdose in London. However, the attorneys hired by Garland’s former husband, Sid Luft, eventually learned this money actually went into a ‘holding company’ owned by Begelman – later traced to his private bank account.
Still, Begelman’s Teflon-coated reputation weathered the allegations. He continued to operate in high offices inside Hollywood, assuming the post as CEO of the emasculated entrails once known as MGM in 1980; appointed to helm Sherwood Productions in 1983 – a company backed by millionaire/sports executive and champion racehorse breeder, Bruce McNall. But only a year later, despite several successful ventures, the love affair between Begelman and McNall was over; McNall pulling out of Sherwood, and Begelman founding Gladden Entertainment, named after his wife, Gladys. In hindsight, there is little to deny Begelman his ability to pick a winner in the film industry, having greenlit such enviable megahits as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Poltergeist (1980) and War games (1983). His tenure at Gladden would be distinguished by a trio of successful rom/com’s Mannequin, Weekend at Bernie's, and The Fabulous Baker Boys (the latter two made and released in 1989). Alas, old habits die hard, and Begelman’s fraud continued. Reportedly, he inflated revenues to attract new investors before being forced to declare bankruptcy in the mid-1990’s. Seemingly at the end of his run and rope, Begelman was discovered dead in his hotel room at the Century Plaza on Aug. 7, 1995; his death later ruled as a suicide.
Mannequin is a lot of fun in the 'oh my God I can't believe they did that' sort of way. This, I suspect, remains its undeniable charm, and, at least in retrospect, seeing the sultry Cattrall, pre-Sex and The City, looking ever so alluring as the reincarnated spirit turned storefront clothes horse, only glimpsed in her human form by the one man who truly adores her. There is genuine chemistry between Cattrall and costar, Andrew McCarthy as they mug for the camera and chew up the opulent scenery inside Wanamaker's; the production team shooting nightly between 9pm and 6am so as not to disrupt the department store’s daily hours of operation. The Pygmalion-inspired story is equally as indulged with some uber-sarcasm from screenwriter, Edward Rugoff and director, Gottlieb. But there is no getting around the relatively lowbrow approach to Rugoff and Gottlieb’s humor. One effete man keeping a small army of butch security guards at bay with a fire hose, while shouting “Mine’s bigger than yours is!” can hardly go down as being one of the literati. Nevertheless, one cannot dismiss Mannequin’s ability to click with the public.
As the ex-brat packer cum leading man, Andrew McCarthy is exactly the art house fav needed to pull off this benign – yet beguiling – amusement. His Jonathan Switcher is a bit of red herring; more rumpled and boyish than manly; overburdened and overshadowed by a possessive uber-bitch of a gal pal, Roxie Shield (Carole Davis). Like most of his generation, Jonathan does not really fit into the status quo. He also seems to lack ambition. But what Jonathan really has is a bad case of the ‘artsy-fartsies’. He believes in things that last; placing quality above commercialism – a notion as foreign to the plasticized eighties, even as it angers his boss at the mannequin factory (Phil Rubenstein), who fires Jonathan on his principles alone, but also for taking far too much time to create the perfect female form Emmy’s spirit will eventually occupy. There is no place for artistic integrity in mass produced, built on the assembly line, crass commercialism. So, Jonathan meets Roxie for lunch. She is the epitome of the power-brokering/shoulder-padded corporate business woman; a mid-level exec at rival department store, Illustra; a cruel, if statuesque, presence with a ‘gold watch’ where a real woman’s heart ought to be. Roxie quickly chides Jonathan for losing his job and dumps him without so much as batting an eyebrow. At work, Roxie is ogled by her devious boss, B.J. Wert (Stephen Vinovich), and, lusted after by shoe salesman, Armand (Christopher Maher).
Before being fired, Jonathan created ‘Emmy’, his ideal woman. Losing sight of her, this man who would play God, suffers the slings and arrows of an unremarkable spate of menial jobs; working at a pizza parlor and entertaining kids by inflating balloons for private parties. Sometime later, Jonathan is shocked to discover Emmy modeling clothes in one of Prince & Co.’s windows. Applying for a job as a decorator’s assistant to Hollywood Montrose, simply to be near Emmy, Jonathan incurs the ire of the store’s near-sighted HR man, Mr. Richards (James Spader). Richards is not exactly looking for promise when it comes to hiring new staff. Instead, he is insidiously working behind the scenes to help Wert in his take-over plans, undermining Prince and Co.’s reputation. As fate would have it, Jonathan gains the ear of the aged daughter of the store’s founder, Claire Timkin (Estelle Getty) who cannot bear the thought of selling out her father’s legacy to Wert. Besides, Wert would tear down these grandiose manor halls to put up another cardboard and plywood, superficially glitzy Illustra on the city’s east side.
At first, Jonathan’s job is as mundane as his previous endeavors; his unlikely friendship with Hollywood, the one bright spot to keep the creative juices flowing. However, when Emmy comes to life – imbued with the wanderer’s spirit – Jonathan, at first in disbelief, becomes inspired to concoct some stunning window displays. These reinvigorate foot traffic on the sidewalks and eventually draw the paying customers inside. Each night, Emmy and Jonathan skulk off to work their magic on another window; always featuring Emmy as the star attraction. However, having grown suspicious of Jonathan’s sudden popularity, Mr. Richards sets out to expose Jonathan as a fraud, thereby ruining his reputation and hopefully forcing Mrs. Timkin to fire him. But who can argue with Jonathan’s success? Certainly not Timkin. His windows have all but saved Prince & Co. from the wrecking ball. “I wouldn’t care if he ran down the halls naked with a rubber glove on his head, yelling ‘look! I’m a squid!’” she tells Richards. To prove her faith in Jonathan, Claire appoints him as the youngest Vice President in the history of the company.
Frustrated by Prince & Co.’s newfound popularity, Richards appoints an inept night security guard, Captain Felix Maxwell (G.W. Bailey) to keep a watchful eye on Jonathan’s midnight rendezvous with Emmy. Still, Jonathan has two aces in the hole. First, Mrs. Timkin utterly adores him. Unbeknownst to Claire, the fabulous window dressings have all been inspired by Emmy's keen eye and flair for the artistic. Second, Jonathan has acquired a loyal friend in fellow window dresser, Hollywood Montrose, who eases Jonathan through some of his own creative 'hang ups' and ultimately helps him rescue Emmy after a botched kidnapping, perpetrated by Richards and Maxwell on Wert’s say so; meant as blackmail to get Jonathan to come and work for Illustra. Meanwhile, Armand manages to seduce Roxie into bed. Still dissatisfied, and moreover, utterly jealous of Jonathan’s ‘relationship’ with Emmy, Roxie decides to put an end to things by feeding Jonathan’s favorite mannequin into the store’s trash shredder.
Delayed from his chivalrous rescue by Wert’s security guards, Jonathan manages a belated escape into Illustra’s basement, just in time to witness Roxie placing Emmy amongst other mannequins on the conveyor headed for the pulverizing compactor. Held off by Hollywood wielding a firehose, Wert’s men eventually overpower Hollywood and force their way inside; seeing Jonathan pull Emmy – suddenly and permanently reincarnated in her human form - to safety. The spell broken, Wert is as bewildered as Roxie, when Jonathan and Emmy accuse them all of kidnapping and attempted murder. Grateful and reunited, Jonathan and Emmy embrace as Mrs. Timkin and Hollywood look on. In the movie’s epilogue – set to Jefferson Starship’s chart-topping megahit, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ – Emmy and Jonathan are married in a lavish ceremony staged inside one of Prince & Co. windows. As the public gathered on the sidewalks just outside burst into applaud, Emmy tosses her bouquet into the air, caught by Hollywood, who breaks into overly dramatic tears.
Mannequin is mindless, convoluted and totally impractical fluff – but carried off with such slick disregard for continuity or even credibility that, on the whole, the film remains a perverse – if minor – hilarity, definitely worth revisiting from time to time. The clever kinetic male bonding between straight-laced Jonathan and the wildly theatrical Hollywood, the undisputed 'queen’ of Prince & Co., remains delightfully oblivious to the garishness of its perceived insult to the gay community and, at least in hindsight, rather gingerly sincere in its shameless lampoon. While both Andrew McCarthy and Meshach Taylor would be the immediate beneficiaries of this movie’s success; McCarthy briefly considered Hollywood’s new golden boy and steadily working thereafter – although, increasingly, in forgettable fare, while Taylor insinuated into our hearts in the reoccurring role of ex-con, Anthony Bouvier on TV’s popular sit-com, Designing Women (1986-1993), Kim Cattrall’s movie and TV career have since proven the greatest longevity.
No one could ever accuse Mannequin of being high art. And yet, viewed today, it retains its place amongst fondly recalled movie-land memories from the 1980’s. Ridiculous as it seems, especially for a guy whose favorite movies are Gone With The Wind (1939), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Godfather (1972) – among many others – all of them cultural touchstones for one reason or another, I continue to harbor a certain incongruous affinity for the idiotically claptrap that is Mannequin. What can I tell you? The picture came to me during my infancy as a lover of movie art and within a decade where positivism was as plentiful as it proved the flavor du jour and spice of life. Mannequin feeds into the 80’s unmitigated gladsomeness: just a simple story about an ‘every man’ who dared dream and had his prayers answered. Our present era, riddled in downtrodden entertainments where no one comes out the winner, could certainly take its cue from the celebratory quality of movies like Mannequin. And no – I am not suggesting this is a great movie. It is, however, a highly enjoyable one; nutty, ironic, clumsily slapped together, but holding our attentions nonetheless.
Olive Media’s new Blu-ray easily bests MGM’s tired old DVD transfer. But I suspect, Olive’s disc is derived from a slightly repurposed scan provided to them by MGM, still not given the complete upgrade it ought to have received (as no movie released thru third party distribution via MGM ever is!)…I’ll just depart a moment from reviewing this disc to illustrate the obvious. We are going into 2016. There is no room for shoddy hi-def transfers in an era launching 4K televisions. No room, no sense, and, no economy in it either. We have ultra-hi-def monitors but no ultra-hi-def hardware to take full advantage of this technology. Shameful…and dumb…and badly done all around. What a mess is the industry today. MGM is financially beleaguered. I get that. But they are also a subsidiary of Fox Home Video – a company with a lot of money to spare. It is high time both companies realized there is virtually NO economy in disregarding catalog titles any longer. Besides, the cultural history of Hollywood bygone is worth far more than its present day digest of largely forgettable compost.
But back to Mannequin. Overall, colors support the vintage saturated 80’s look of the film. This transfer really favors blues, reds and purples – all of them eye-popping. Flesh tones equally look accurate. So, good stuff here. There is also a surprising amount of sharpness and solid detail throughout – even, some depth. Black levels are accurately maintained with no crushing. Finally, film grain has been naturally rendered. Minor blemishes are present, but there are no obvious digital artifacts to distract. The audio does not fair nearly as well. Lest we forget, Mannequin was shot on a shoe-string, so I really was not expecting an immersive 5.1 DTS mix. No surprise: we get a 2.0 DTS instead. Overall, it does the trick, but its balance is off; voices low, and the score and SFX suddenly booming to life. I suppose I ought to point out Mannequin’s audio – at least on home video – always suffered from a slightly muffled characteristic. I do not recall this from my theatrical experience, but again, it has been quite a few years, and, I was a kid back then, with less discerning tastes and expectations. Once again, we are shafted on the extras. Sorry, but at this late stage in the evolution of home video I do not count or consider a ‘theatrical trailer’ as an extra. Neither should you. Bottom line: Mannequin carries an air of nostalgia for me that this Blu-ray resurrects with minor caveats. Like the movie itself – it’s good, but not great.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)