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Director: Michael Gottlieb
Writers: Edward Rugoff, Michael Gottlieb
Stars: Andrew McCarthy, Kim Cattrall, Estelle Getty, James Spader, Meshach Taylor
Release Date: February 13, 1987 (United States)
Run time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
In Ancient Egypt, Ema “Emmy” Hesire takes refuge in a pyramid, pleading to the gods that she find true love rather than enter an arranged marriage. Emmy suddenly vanishes before her mother’s eyes. In 1987 Philadelphia, Jonathan Switcher is a sculptor working at a mannequin warehouse and finishes a single female mannequin he considers a masterpiece. His boss fires him for spending time trying to make his mannequins works of art rather than assembling several each day.
Jonathan takes a number of odd jobs and is fired each time for working too slowly because he tries to make each project artistic. His girlfriend Roxie Shield, an employee of the Illustra department store, dumps him, criticizing him as a flake. After his motorcycle breaks down in the rain, Jonathan passes the Prince & Company department store. Seeing his mannequin in the display window, he remarks she is the first work that made him feel like a true artist. The next morning, he saves store owner Claire Timkin from being injured by her own shop sign. Grateful, Claire orders store manager Mr. Richards (who is secretly paid by Illustra to sabotage Prince & Company so it can be bought) to give Jonathan a job. Viewed with suspicion by security guard Captain Felix Maxwell, Jonathan works with and befriends window dresser Hollywood Montrose. When Jonathan is putting together a window display, the mannequin he made comes to life with Emmy’s spirit. She says she has existed for centuries as a muse, sometimes inhabiting the works of an artist she admires and inspires. She has encountered amazing people but has never found true love. Emmy explains the gods allow her life when she and Jonathan are unobserved, otherwise she is a mannequin.
With Emmy’s help, Jonathan’s window display is a massive success. Now placed in charge of visual merchandising, Jonathan asks Emmy to continue helping with the displays. Over several weeks, they create several popular displays, attracting new business while also deepening their relationship. Montrose realizes Jonathan loves a mannequin he created but does not judge him. Illustra’s chief executive B.J. Wert sends Roxie to poach Jonathan but he refuses, saying he now works for people who value him. Annoyed by Felix’s ineptitude and Richards’ attitude towards Jonathan, Claire fires them. Deeply impressed with his work, Claire makes Jonathan vice president of the department store. One night, Jonathan takes Emmy through the city on his motorcycle, despite how unusual this seems to bystanders. He is witnessed by Richards and Felix, who conclude he is deeply fixated on a female mannequin.
Richards and Felix (who now works for Illustra) steal the female mannequins from Prince & Company. The next morning, Jonathan confronts Wert about the theft, who makes another job offer. Furious over Jonathan caring so much about the mannequin he calls Emmy, Roxie storms off. Jonathan follows Roxie while being pursued by security guards including Felix. Wert and Richards demand the police be called. Roxie loads the stolen mannequins into the store’s large trash compactor, then is knocked out by debris. As Hollywood holds the pursuers at bay with a fire hose, a janitor watches Jonathan jump onto the compactor’s conveyor belt to save the mannequin that is Emmy. As Jonathan risks his life for her, Emmy comes to life. Once safe, she realizes she is truly and permanently alive again. Emmy thanks the gods for uniting her with her true love and Jonathan promises to love her forever.
While the janitor wonders if other mannequins will come to life, Hollywood arrives and realizes Emmy was alive the entire time. Felix and his fellow guards rush in, followed by Wert and Richards who demand the police arrest Jonathan. Claire arrives, revealing she has security video of Richards and Felix breaking and entering, and committing theft. She accuses Wert of conspiracy, and Jonathan adds the man also kidnapped Emmy. Wert fires Roxie as he is arrested and hauled away alongside Richards and Felix. Jonathan realizes the security footage may have shown him being romantic with a mannequin, but Claire coyly suggests he should not worry about that. Some time later, Jonathan and Emmy are married in the store window of Prince & Company, with Claire as maid of honor and Hollywood as best man. Numerous pedestrians outside the store window applaud the wedding.
Mannequin begins with a short weird animation sequence, and I thought to myself as I watched it that I might be absorbing some type of MK Ultra programming. Perhaps I did. The film was certainly strange enough as to not rule out nefarious government-led brainwashing efforts.
The writer and director of this film, Michael Gottlieb, was credited three other times on IMDB with a writing credit: Mr. Nanny (a film about Hulk Hogan working as a nanny), Playboy Midsummer Night’s Dream Party 1985 (listed as a TV movie), and he also got a “characters by” credit for this movie’s sequel. His co-writer, Edward Rugoff, worked on only three other projects as a writer: Mannequin: On the Move (a sequel starring Kristy Swanson), the aforementioned Mr. Nanny, and a suspense film titled Double Take.
Why am I talking about MK Ultra and looking into the writing credits of the filmmakers? Am I crazy? Probably. I also think that there is something distinctly subversive about this fairy tale film. The movie has a dim view of the modern economic world. Jonathan (Andrew McCarthy) continues getting jobs and getting fired in the opening scenes of the film, primarily because he cares too much about the artistry of his own work. The effect of that short sequence is to diminish the import of having employment, entirely. He ends up finally landing a good job by total happenstance, not by an appreciation for his talent. Once he has the job, there are forces at work trying to get him fired because he is too good at window dressing. Even the idea that a window display could shake up the fortunes of two large Philadelphia businesses seems ludicrous and the audience is supposed to notice how ludicrous it is. I think the audience was supposed to view the economic system as a whole as a bit ludicrous.
The movie is also subversive in its depiction of sexual morality. The protagonist has what eventually ends up being a romantic and sexual relationship with a mannequin. As the film ends, I am not entirely clear that we are supposed to believe that “Emmy” is alive in a literal sense (more on that below.) The movie also portrays flamboyantly gay character, Hollywood (Meshach Taylor), as Jonathan’s one true friend and as a hero. During the movie’s dramatic rescue sequence, Hollywood fights off the police, using a water hose. That scene is silly, but it is replete with all kinds of racial and sexual symbolic meaning. The male corporate leaders and their police henchmen are clearly presented as bad guys and there’s a sense of tables being turned on them. In case there is any question as to whether this point of view on sexual morality is intended solely for comedy, the writers clear that up by having Jonathan (Andrew McCarthy) tell a bad guy police officer that his views re: Hollywood are bigoted. Mannequin was released an entire decade before the Ellen DeGeneres cancellation controversy in the 1990s. In many respects, the movie was well ahead of its time. The writers were able to include this much culturally subversive messaging by hiding it within the absurdity of the plot setting. Who is going to look too closely at a film about a guy whose mannequin comes to life?
That brings me back to another issue. I am not entirely clear that “Emmy” ever actually comes to life. Though she is addressed, by Hollywood, Roxie, and others, she barely speaks to anyone other than Jonathan after her transformation to permanent human form. One interpretation of how the movie ends is that Jonathan abandons his anxieties about how his relationship with her might be perceived, when he risks life and limb to rescue her from the mannequin-destroying conveyor belt of doom. From there forward, he and the audience continue to perceive Emmy as being real. That does not mean that the other characters see her that way from their own perspectives. One hint we are given that she might not have ever really come to life, in addition to how little Emmy communicates at the end, occurs during the motorcycle chase scene. Depending on the angle of the camera, Emmy is either a mannequin, or she is alive. This back and forth occurred to make a point about perspective and belief. In theory, she should either have been always a mannequin, or always alive, during that chase, with the deciding factor being whether she can be seen by anyone other than Jonathan. That’s not what happened, though. Another clue given during the movie is that when the crowd of women gather to listen in on Jonathan talking to Emmy, outside of the women’s bathroom, none of them comment on Emmy’s voice. They seem only to hear Jonathan. We might thus infer that the rest of her existence is similarly dependent upon perspective, not thinly provided magical rules.
If Emmy is not real, then what is she? I think Emmy is a manifestation of mental illness and through that, a metaphor for Jonathan’s true creative self. His motorcycle also shares that designation. When Jonathan is at his lowest moment in the film, jobless and pushing his motorcycle that will not start in the rain, he finds Emmy as a mannequin standing in the window. He comments that she is the best thing he has created and that she makes him feel like a real artist. When he determines to go back to that store the next day, his motorcycle suddenly starts again. In fact, it runs just fine later in the movie during a chase scene – with Emmy on the back. We can contrast that moment with Andrew giving Roxie a ride earlier in the movie and the bike struggling to function. Roxie is not a believer in, nor a proponent of Jonathan’s creative endeavors so as a result, his motorcycle struggles in her presence.
As I mentioned before, the movie is a fairy tale. Well, what is a fairy tale? Let’s ask Webster:
fairy tale noun
1a: a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (such as fairies, wizards, and goblins)
enjoyed the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” called also fairy story
b: a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending
those balletic fairy tales in which a new corps member steps in for an injured principal at the last minute and delivers a splendid performance—Margaret Willis
2: a made-up story usually designed to mislead
an old-fashioned fairy tale depicting revolutionists as demigods—Jonathan Zimmerman
This movie is rated PG and appeals to younger audiences. It involves fantastic magical forces and beings. It has what seems to be a happy ending (the movie appears to end in a well-attended and well-celebrated wedding.) Mannequin might also have been designed to mislead. You might have watched this movie and cheered on a man with significant and severe mental illness having a relationship with a mannequin. The film even includes a scene where Jonathan reaches out to numerous people for help. He ultimately indulges his fantasy because it is happy and because – in his own words – he cannot afford a psychiatrist. The people around him seem to think he has mental illness, too, but they encourage him forward into mental health decline because that decline produces better art. The movie is cynical enough to define art as the window dressing displays at a shopping center.
So what is this movie? Is it a story with subversive messaging about capitalism, mental health awareness, and/or sexual morality? Is it a fun modern day fairy tale where a hapless romantic artist finds a kindred magical spirit – who just so happens to look like a young Kim Cattrall? Yes. It’s all of those things. You can make it of what you want, for good or bad. I enjoyed the movie, though I did so from the point of view of study, rather than escapism. My guess is that a normal person might enjoy a straight-forward interpretation of the movie.
Let me know what you think.