The hero we need.
The hero we need. Mannequin

The greatest action hero of the 1980s is Hollywood Montrose, the flaming gay window dresser in the stupid movie, Mannequin.

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Hollywood was surely never intended to be the focus of the film, a silly rom-com starring Kim Cattrall (later of Sex and the City) and Estelle Getty (then of The Golden Girls). And yet he not only steals the show, he manages to perfect the Gay Best Friend trope back when queer characters, on those rare occasions that they were allowed to exist, tended to be punch lines and gross-out gags.

Despite his status as a low-billed supporting character, Hollywood is an innovation: A gay hero who is allowed to have a love life, who is respected, and who defeats multiple foes in combat. His presence elevates Mannequin from what would have been a forgettable, doofusy near-comedy into essential queer canon.

Mannequin, if you are not familiar, is a doofusy farce about an ancient Egyptian spirit (played by Kim Cattrall, who as an Egyptian is not the slightest bit convincing) who travels through time to serve as muse for a young, aspiring mannequin sculptor in mid-80s Philadelphia. Emmi, the spirit, inhabits the body of a department store dummy carved by the sculptor, Jonathan. When he (and only he) is present, she comes to life as a vivacious, outgoing mannequin pixie dreamgirl who inspires him to create further works of art. His medium: Department store windows.

Meanwhile, there’s a deliciously absurd b-plot about an evil takeover scheme developed by a rival department store; James Spader wanders by in a truly inspired performance as the clumsy overambitious executive; and to absolutely nobody’s surprise, the heterosexuals wind up falling in love and finding happiness together in the end.

But then there’s Hollywood. Played by Meshach Taylor (who would make his debut on Designing Women a few months after the movie bombed), this side-character steals the entire picture, and makes history as one of the most fully-realized gay characters ever committed to film by that point. He’s first introduced with a sassy snap, a head-bobble, and various whoops and shrieks; you could be forgiven for expecting another groan-worthy stereotype of a sensitive, sexless interior designer.

But Hollywood stuns. For one thing, he’s set apart from other gay-trope characters of the time, in that from his earliest lines he talks openly about his love life. To be fair, that discussion hinges on a breakup with his partner, but it’s unambiguous that Hollywood dates and has relationships with men — a departure from films that had come before that didn’t dare broach the topic when coding characters as queer.

Another difference in Mannequin’s treatment of its gay hero: Jonathan, our ostensible star, sticks up for him. Rather than rolling his eyes or distancing himself from the queer guy, Jonathan calls out another character’s homophobia, calling a hostile security guard a “bigoted jerk.” Creating a world where homophobes are bad guys and where good guys stand up for their gay friends is another unusual step for the film.

Hollywood’s greatest moments come when it’s time for him to save the day. After the evil department store steals Emmi away while she’s in mannequin form, Hollywood alerts Jonathan and whisks him away on a rescue mission. He then uses a firehose to hold a passel of security guards at bay while Jonathan snatches Emmi from the jaws of an industrial mannequin-shredder.

And in Mannequin’s even-less-coherent sequel, Mannequin on the Move, Hollywood is an even more active protagonist, breaking down a door in the film’s climax and confronting a henchman so that the film’s hero can once again rescue the damsel in distress. Multiple major plot beats in both films are the work of Hollywood; whereas gay characters tended previously to serve as passive comic relief, Hollywood is crucial to the story.

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There had, of course, been a few other gay Black heroes on film by the time Hollywood appeared. There was Lindy from the movie Carwash, and Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds. Following Mannequin’s release, there were more authentic depictions in the documentaries Tongues Untied and Paris is Burning. A few years later in Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, Wesley Snipes would play a triumphant drag queen (or at least an approximate drag queen — the movie’s a little vague on whether the characters are doing drag or are nonbinary or trans or an amalgamation of many different categories).

And it’s important to note that all of those fictional characters are played by heterosexual cis men. Queer Black heroes played by queer Black actors wouldn’t truly have a mainstream moment until Billy Porter and Tituss Burgess and Laverne Cox hit, decades later.

But for his time, Hollywood Montrose was a revelation. Funny, respected, unabashedly sexual, a brave defender of his friends who is in turn bravely defended by his friends, Hollywood isn’t just one of the most fully-realized gay characters of the 80s. He’s one of the most fully-realized of any 80s character.

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