Making Mr. Right (1987) Directed by Susan Seidelman. John Malkovich, Ann Magnuson, Glenne Headley (98 min) PG-13
Frankie Stone (Ann Magnusson) is a crack ad exec, able to craft campaigns that make even bland politicians seem almost human. Tasked with creating public support for a pricey android designed to withstand the rigors of space travel, Frankie finds herself creating not just a man, but a mensch. This very 80s version of the Frankenstein story was directed by Seidelman after her smash hit “Madonna movie” Desperately Seeking Susan. Its creature and creator (both John Malkovich) are dissected from a female perspective, and it seems crafted as a direct rebuke to John Hughes’ beloved Weird Science. “A genuine oddball item, the film is either a botched experiment or an original hybrid…this witty screwball SF comedy seems a sure bet for videotape reevaluation” (Cinefantistique review by Thomas Doherty).
Ulysses is an avid pupil.
We all have our favorite classic Hollywood comedies, with scenes that we love, and would watch over and over again. Cary Grant jousting with Mr. Smith, the dog with whom he shares joint custody with Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. Walter Catlett’s eyebrows going up and down as Katharine Hepburn tells him she’s “Swinging Door Susie” in Bringing Up Baby. Barbara Stanwyck seducing Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. But we need new favorites, too! Movies to discover, when our old favorites have lost an infinitesimal bit of their glow.
If the film version of The Wizard of Oz is something like the American national fairy tale, in many ways the Frankenstein story proposes itself as the horror movie variation of silver screen comfort food. Not the novel by Mary Shelly, in which Victor Frankenstein creates a frightsome but garrulous philosopher, with whom he can argue about the Enlightenment, but the 1931 film in which Boris Karloff embodies a monster envisioned by James Whale, make-up artist Jack Pierce and costume designer Vera West. This monster is mostly mute (at least until the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein) and is neither a physical nor mental replica of his creator.
“All great myths balance irreconcilable opposites. This very characteristic keeps the Frankenstein story alive, retold and reinterpreted through almost two centuries since its original appearance in Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel. It is on the one hand so true as to be universal, and on the other, malleable enough to conform to different times, places, peoples and moments in history. In this story reverberate the monumental paradoxes of life and death, right and wrong, human and divine” (Hitchcock 6). The 20th century has been fascinated, not just by the creation of biological life in the laboratory, but first mechanical robots and now what we vaguely term A. I. Making Mr. Right has cinematic echoes all the way back to the evil Robot Maria, a double of the kindly human Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Now, we accept that we have androids (on Android devices!) talking to us on our phones and from our kitchen counters. It’s a small step forward to envision humanoid members of the household. Alexa, do the dishes.
Even though Frankenstein was penned by a woman, film adaptations usually lack a woman’s point of view, except, perhaps, for Elsa Lancaster’s ear-splitting shriek when she sees the prospective groom in her arranged marriage in The Bride… When the novel was written, the male contribution to the creation of biological life was imperfectly understood by most people. Women seemed to be the lone creators of babies. Victor Frankenstein could easily create life by impregnating a wife (or sweetheart!) but for some reason he wants to do it the hard way.
Jeff has created an awkward promo film…he doesn’t even bother to iron his labcoat to make a good impression.
Director Susan Seidleman majored in design at Drexel University, and then became a film student at NYU. Her short films won prizes, and she scraped together a tiny budget for Smithereens, about a young woman on the crusty edges of the 80s NYC club scene. Smithereens was a downbeat version of her breakout hit, Desperately Seeking Susan, which was directed, produced and written by women. Its lightness of tone, humor, and happy ending set it apart from much of independent filmmaking, where comedy has been traditionally undervalued.
Thanks to “the Madonna movie” Seidelman was the hottest female director in conventional Hollywood. Madonna was not a star when they began filming, but during the last week of production, Like A Virgin came out, and Seidelman captured on film the elusive quality that made Madonna a superstar. Both Madonna and her director coasted to a huge box office success. Her second mainstream film would be critical to her career; female directors from a slightly earlier timeframe, like Joan Micklin Silver, Joan Tewkesbury, and Joan Darling, were not given another chance once their chance at a commercial film underperformed, unlike male directors who seem to be given endless chances to redeem themselves as hitmakers.
The script for Making Mr. Right arrived via two of her friends, Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank. The juxtaposition of romantic comedy and science fiction appealed to her, even though she had no experience with special effects films. About a quarter of the film needed to be shot twice, because Malkovich was playing a dual role. Seidleman told Cinefantastique, “I find modern romance very confusing. This movie reflects upon the confused relationships between men and women in the 80s and does it in a satirical way. Although it’s a screwball comedy, I wanted to do it in the context of the science fiction genre.”
She filmed Making Mr. Right in Miami, fondly remembered from childhood holidays, because of its cultural mix, which seemed to instill the right mood. “The thing that I like so much about Florida, which is one of the reasons we (the movie company) came down here, is there’s such an odd mix of cultures and architecture here. To me that’s sort of what the film is about — crossing over boundaries. People who aren’t supposed to connect with each other end up connecting. That melting pot, that worlds colliding feeling, is something I feel pretty strongly about.” (sun-sentinel).
And, rather than choose a more predicable actress for an off-beat 80s rom com, she chose performance artist Ann Magnuson. “She has a different, a little more modern take on the career woman, unlike those yuppie career ladies you see in their Reeboks or those models playing executives on television commercials. In a way Ann’s a throwback to the career woman in old movies like Rosalind Russell. She had such style and pizazz.” (sun-sentinel). Reviewers commented that she looked like a young Shirley MacLaine (it’s that haircut from The Apartment) and Magnuson joked that she was MacLaine’s next life.
You can’t help but love Frankie when you meet her. Under the opening credits, she negotiates Miami traffic on her way to work in her lipstick red 1964 Corvair, while she applies her Corvair red lipstick. She’s driving barefoot, with her Keith Haring patterned high heels on the floor, wearing a zingy 80s color block sheath dress and bolero. She’s made the mistake of dating her latest political client, her creation, and she is dumping him because he cheated on her.
Humanizing the android Ulysses is a challenge she is ready to tackle. But she’s surprised that the creator of the android has made him in his own image (as were some reviewers). No publicist would describe John Malkovich as a matinee idol, and the hilarious long wig that he wears is no help, whatsoever. Because he’s a scientist, with a nerd’s unfamiliarity with easy social interactions, in order to sell Ulysses to the public (and most important, potential funders) she has to make him appear human. Jeff finds this a complete waste of time. But she tells Ulysses how to make eye contact, how to listen, how to treat people as important, qualities that Jeff himself lacks. She inadvertently begins to make Ulysses over in her image.
Frankie’s fantastic Corvair!
Malkovich was a relative newcomer to films, and this was his first comedy. We are used to seeing him in such serious, even menacing roles, that this performance comes as a delightful surprise. He’s so adept at differentiating the two characters, you are never confused when he is playing one or the other. He has excellent support from Glenne Headley as Frankie’s best friend (she was Malkovich’s real-life wife at the time) and Laurie Metcalf, in a ridiculous feathered hairdo, is hilarious as a ditzy date of Jeff’s, who cannot tell him apart from Ulysses. Malkovich and Metcalf were classmates in the theater department of Illinois State University, and along with Headley were charter members of the revolutionary Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.
“For those moviegoers who want to find a message in Making Mr. Right, due to be released next March, Seidelman has an answer, “Who you think on paper is Miss or Mr. Right in reality may not be. You may have to look outside of what you thought the parameters were to find this person . . . Frankie winds up falling in love. Not only is he not a WASP, but he’s not a human.” (sun-sentinel).
Recent writers have twinned Making Mr. Right with Young Frankenstein, especially as far as the monster’s education, especially sexual education is concerned. Interestingly, Making Mr. Right is a Frankenstein story without a creation scene, usually an important centerpiece. When Frankie meets Ulysses, he is already “alive.” Another writer compares him to another 80s android, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data. “…in the 1980s, at a time when feminists began to vocalize the need for men to change, for each character exudes a clear sense of innocence and is not subject to testosterone, poor father figures, peer group pressure and whatever other biological, cultural and psychological factors supposedly shape masculinity. These figures thus promote an alternative form of being male that is not staked in opposition to ‘female’ characteristics, and which therefore crucially permits some measure of equality in their relationships with women” (Short 100).
Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf at the mall.
The script was written in 1985, the year that John Hughes’ Weird Science was released. A teen comedy, it incorporates excerpts of Whale’s Frankenstein (on tv) as the two hapless heroes use computers, a Barbie doll and some Playboy magazines to create their perfect woman. Their most important consideration is the size of her breasts, and they intend to give her the brain of a 5th grader. Weird Science is almost unwatchable, with its misogyny, racism, and gay panic (granted, par for the course for an 80s film) but Lisa (played by model Kelly LeBrock) does eventually teach her creators a lesson, about being honest and sincere. Making Mr. Right seems to be a direct rebuke to John Hughes’ fondly remembered teen comedy. Male fantasies seek an attractive appearance and a submissive nature, but women’s fantasies seek emotional engagement that this robot can be taught, even if biological men are hopeless.
The film is full of dual images: Jeff and Ulysses in the center of the double vision of course, but right from the very beginning, Frankie watches Steve on tv, she has a giant life-size cut out of him, and he appears at her door, all more or less simultaneously. Part of the fun of the film is these juxtapositions, like the photographs taken in front of a beachy backdrop, obscuring the real ocean behind it. “Indeed, the film’s insistent repetition of reproduced and doubled images brings into question the privileging of male authenticity over the mirroring, artifice, images, and superficiality that have traditionally been linked to women-and to popular culture. The making of “Mr. Right,” then, becomes precisely a matter of reproduction that not only doubles the `man,’ but also parodies the idea of masculine authenticity and seriousness” (Manners).
Reviews were not enthusiastic, although the Orlando Sentinel did get it, “the movie also has the advantage of offering a rarity of the cinema: a female perspective. Amusement about unsatisfactory male sexual performance and anger at unfaithful lovers are expressed in ways that they probably wouldn’t have been in a film by a male director.” They wanted to know why a “somewhat narcissistic” creator would make a man that looks like John Malkovich. The cluelessness of question is hilarious. Every man, no matter how average, thinks he deserves the hot girls. The whole history of Hollywood and indeed mass culture itself is based on this flawed premise. Jeff has created a man in his image, because he thinks his image cannot be improved upon.
One can’t help but think Making Mr. Right has been overlooked because of its pop-y color palette and comic intent. This references the gendered split where women may preside over mass culture; fashion tv, magazines, consumerism, but men over serious culture. Restoring comedy and romantic comedy to cultural high status is my mission! Sadly, a long, uphill slog.
The French title seems to be a bit of a pun on Et Dieu…Crea La Femme, (And God…Created Woman) the Brigitte Bardot film.
The tagline says, “For one woman, he’s the perfect man. Except he’s not a man.”
This essay is part of the CMBA comedy blogathon!
Unfortunately, this film does not stream anywhere. I recorded it from TCM. You need to watch on DVD. This is why we still need physical media. It will screen as part of my Moviediva Film Series at the Carolina Theatre of Durham.
https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1986-07-06-8602090634-story/ , https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1987-04-14-0120250051-story/ (These two very helpful links are broken). Frankenstein: A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock, The Woman’s Companion to International Film by Annette Kuhn and Susannah Radstone, The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelly by Esther Schor, Cyborg Cinema and Contemporary Subjectivity by S Short, Cinefantastic September 1987 https://archive.org/details/CinefantastiqueVol17No5Sept1987/page/n41/mode/2up ,
“Susan Seidelman on Madonna, Roseanne, and Her Punk Classic Smithereens” by Jason Bailey, Vulture Media, https://go-gale-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/ps/i.do?p=ITOF&u=duke_perkins&id=GALE|A545462784&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon ,
“Post-Human Romance: Parody and Pastiche in Making Mr. Right and Tank Girl”
Manners, Marilyn; Rutsky, R L. Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture; Detroit Vol. 21, Iss. 2, (Spring 1999): 115-138.