Making Mr Right (1987, USA)
Director: Susan Seidelman
Writers: Laurie Frank and Floyd Byars
Women in the crew: Susan Seidelman and Lynn Hendee (producers); Risa Bramon Garcia (casting); Jill M. Berman, Lynn Hendee, Heidi Levitt, and Lisa Peterson (casting assistants) Barbara Ling (production design); Adelle Lutz (costume design); Linda Benedict-Pierce (wardrobe supervisor); Janet Flora (makeup artist); Lyndell Quiyou (hair stylist); Hilda Stark (storyboard artist); Caryn Wolf (art department assistant); Laurie Mullen, Rose Rosenblatt, and Brunilda Torres (assistant sound editors); Kate Lardner and Amy Lumet (apprentice sound editors); Betsy Baker and Adele Solomon (visual effects); Sarah Faura (video assistant); Lyn Geller and Kathryn Schenker (music supervisors); Susana Preston (script supervisor); Valerie Casuso, Marjorie Farber, Zara Metcalfe, Ruth Mullen, Celia Randolph, and Cynthia Streit (production assistants)
Available to stream: No. Can be purchased on DVD.
This review contains **SPOILERS**
Tonally Making Mr Right is of a very different style of SF to the rest of the films that come under the Women Make SF banner. It’s a romcom. I love romcoms. It is also science fiction. I love science fiction. Do I love them together? I mean the romance in Jupiter Ascending was funny/disturbing. But can I get on board with a John Malkovich (of Being John Malkovich fame, as the DVD blurb helpfully informed me) as a romantic lead in a potentially fluffy 80s romcom that few people have even heard of…
xDirector, Susan Seidelman is best known for her second feature film Desperately Seeking Susan that featured Madonna in her first movie role. It was reviewed in 1985 by The Washington Post as ‘a banner for feminism’. Her first film Smithereens (1982) was the earliest North American independent feature to be screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and became a cult 1980s punk film. Seidelman was one of only six women in her class at NYU film school (out of thirty-five) and both of her first features – Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan – focus on downtown punk-rock Manhattan and women protagonists who control not only the narrative but the ways of looking (disrupting if not entirely rejecting the cinematic tendency to replicate/reinforce the straight white male gaze). Making Mr Right is a very different style of film to Seidelman’s previous movies as she moved more explicitly into the mainstream: is this move to apparent industry stability a gilded cage that clipped her rebellious creativity? Can we read this SF-romcom as feminist in line with Seidelman’s earlier films? Does the romance device (traditionally associated with women) challenge the conventions of the often male-orientated science fiction genre?
“Hollywood makes fewer and fewer movies and the budgets go up and up, [and] they don’t give those to women, or very few, if any.”
As much as I enjoyed unpicking the narratives of Jupiter Ascending and Évolution, I do appreciate a high concept offering (see also: Real Genius [Martha Coolidge, 1985]). Public relations and image consultant Frankie Stone (Ann Magnuson*) is hired by Chemtech to work with an android called Ulysses (John Malkovich) who is destined for deep space exploration. She is employed to make him palatable to the public and financial sponsors in Congress to ensure continued funding for space missions. Chemtech’s chief robotic engineer Dr Jeff Peters (also John Malkovich) created the “Ulysses Robot” in his own image (good job, tech bro #PlayingGod) as he believes everyone else is his intellectual inferior. A robot is deemed necessary for the mission due to the impact extended periods of isolation from social interaction would have on a human astronaut. Frankie is brought in to ‘humanise’ the robot, but in her interactions with Ulysses ‘he’ develops better social skills than the ‘real’ scientist and Frankie and Ulysses fall in love (or a simulation of that chemical reaction anyway). Ultimately Peters realises that he is the best pilot for the mission, fulfilling his own dreams of space exploration following the realisation that he will not suffer from the isolation that the now emotionally-developed Ulysses no doubt would.
Making Mr Right is not a particularly well known film, as evidenced by the relative access restrictions (it can’t be streamed and only available on DVD). Although beloved by my colleagues who study AI through a cultural studies/STS lens, this film hasn’t received a huge amount of interest in the years following its release (happy to receive more, give me ALL the Making Mr Right scholarship). It plays with conventions and tropes from both the SF and romcom genres as their crossovers produce moments of humour (and horror)—including a botched seduction where Frankie’s roommate Trish (Glenne Headly) is surely traumatised when Ulysses ‘flies out of control’ fembot-style during sex with Trish and ends up twisted up on the kitchen floor.
As we totally missed in our discussion of Making Mr Right and I’m Your Man on the Women Make SF podcast (episode with Dr Scott Midson, forthcoming), Frankie Stone is a reference to Frankenstein. Her role as a PR maven is interesting as a reference to the rise of promotional culture in the 1980s and as a critique of the image consultant who remakes a person for public consumption (it wasn’t new in the 1980s—Hollywood had been treating stars as images/objects for decades—but the powerful PR woman as character type was**). At the beginning of the film Frankie is seen ending her professional and personal relationship with politician and Congressional candidate Steve Marcus (Ben Masters). His carefully managed personality is a lie, with crude attempts to secure the latinx vote and the revelation that he has cheated on Frankie. In some respects, as Frankie is his image consultant, Steve is a man/monster of Frankie’s own making. But in this opening sequence she gets to, metaphorically at least, chuck him (a life-size campaign cutout) out of a window and have him run over. The film’s title appears over the discarded cutout with a tire track across its chest. Bye, Steve.
In managing Steve, Frankie tried to make herself the perfect, successful man but he wasn’t the right man for her. But with Ulysses she is making Mr Right from scratch and the (apparently) un-human baseline of Jeff Peters. It is more than managing an existing person but rather making one that entirely centres her and her desires (there are interesting parallels here with I’m Your Man). There are also shades of Pygmalion as she is challenged with making the literally robotic Ulysses pass for human/emotional in a way that the actual human Jeff does not. Ulysses is childlike and naive and Frankie has to train him to do everything from walking to making a cup of tea. Though he looks like a thirty-something year old man (?), it’s hard to see him as anything more than a child—he lacks the life experience/programming. I had that same icky feeling that comes with watching the romance storyline in Big (Penny Marshall, 1988) as an adult, where 13-year old Josh (Tom Hanks/David Moscow)—now in an adult body—has a relationship with 30-year old Susan (Elizabeth Perkins). Of course, neither of these films were intended to be read this way (as pedophilic), but this framing of the adult-human presenting robot as sexual always make me uncomfortable.
Like the creature in Frankenstein, Ulysses is framed as a child to the creator (Jeff Peters) but the de facto mother figure (Frankie) that raises him becomes his lover. Make of that (urgh, Freudian reading) what you will. Frankie even states at one point that “I’ve always thought of you as a child”—which is seemingly forgotten in literally the next scene where she sees Ulysses naked and discovers that he is anatomically complete rather than like a Ken doll. “That, uh… thing”, as she explains Ulysses’ penis, changes her relationship to the android from mother to lover. Why has a robot that is designed for isolation been endowed with genitals? Like the synths in Humans, the robot has seemingly been designed with an adult mode. Is Ulysses the man version of many of the women robots of science fiction, where being of service to humans is always intended to involve sex? Jeff created a copy of himself, penis and all. Despite the intended use of much technology, users don’t always follow the instructions including the intended use.
As one bad take review suggests, Making Mr Right is a “fake feminist” film as it proposes that “men are so inadequate they have to be manufactured by women”. I would argue that the positioning of the woman in science-based narrative as one with such power is actually pretty feminist, and to be fair the men in the film are still successful and powerful scientists and politicians and Frankie’s power is still contingent upon male talent. On one hand the positioning of the woman as the protagonist in an SF film with expertise/power is (still) unusual, but on the other Making Mr Right falls into a neat hetreronormative ending. The film is utopian in its outlook of this final coupling but also the imagined futures of cyborg-human relations and posthuman love affairs. So, can we read the film as a comment on the need for women’s insight into the sciences that often reinforce and replicate the patriarchy/male power? Can we fix the Broken Machine of the tech industries with more diverse scientists? Those are pretty big questions for a late-1980s romcom.
*Unexpected crossover: Ann Magnuson (uncredited) played ‘The Madam’ of the Liquid Silver brothel in Women Make SF favourite Tank Girl (1995)!
**Seidelman also directed the pilot episode of Sex and the City introducing, amongst others, PR executive Samantha Jones [Kim Cattrall]
What to watch next from Susan Seidelman:
Making Mr Right was Seidelman’s third feature but is her only science fiction film to date.
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
Episode 1, Season 1 of Sex and the City (1998) – fascinating comparison in the presentation of women in Manhattan to the director’s earlier Manhattan movies
Carol Colatrella (2006). Feminist Narratives of Science and Technology: Artificial Life and True Love in Eve of Destruction and Making Mr Right. IN: Mary Frank Fox, Deborah G. Johnson, Sue Rosser (eds.). Women, Gender, and Technology. University of Illinois Press, pp.157-173.
Jackie Stacey (1987). Desperately Seeking Difference: Desire between Women in Narrative Cinema. Screen 28(1): 48-61.
Kate Erbland (2016). Susan Seidelman Looks Back: How ‘Smithereens’ Defined Her Career – Girl Talk. IndieWire.
Sarah Sharma (2020). A Manifesto for the Broken Machine. Camera Obscura 35(2): 171-178.
Julie Wosk (2015). My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves. Rutgers UP.