In 1990, years after Grease, “Physical,” and Xanadu, Olivia Newton-John made her TV movie debut as a department store mannequin brought to life — and no, this probably wasn’t the living-mannequin story you’re thinking of right now. Unpacking the masterpiece that is A Mom for Christmas might take some time, so you might want to sit down.
Live mannequins had appeared in TV and film long before 1990. Some were utterly confused and looking for a thimble (Anne Francis in a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone), some were inhabited by ancient Egyptian spirits traveling centuries to find true love (Kim Cattrall in 1987’s Mannequin). Or you can skip all the way to 2000’s Life Size, when a tomboy Lindsay Lohan gets a doll for her birthday and it transforms into Tyra Banks. All of these women knew how to shine bright and shine far, but nobody did it better than Newton-John, who died on Monday at 73.
The film obviously includes several Newton-John songs (written by her longtime collaborator John Farrar), but at the forefront is her performance as Amy, a mannequin in a Cincinnati department store that has black-and-white tile floors and a magical clerk played by Doris Roberts.
This is still the era of peak American mall culture, so in this film kids regularly hang out here, standing around in the women’s clothing section and calling each other “dweebs” for wearing dresses that were possibly too floral. 11-year-old Jessica (Juliet Sorci Duncan) is on the receiving end of this bullying, but she’s mostly busy staring at other girls shopping with their moms, wishing hers hadn’t died when she was three. She confides her deepest wish to Roberts — she wants a mom for Christmas — and suddenly Newton-John materializes at her front door.
Like other mannequins portrayed on film, Amy is only human temporarily; she must return to the store on Christmas Eve. But she makes the most of her time by being the dream mom Jess always wanted, helping her navigate a school crush while encouraging her to overcome stage fright. Amy also encounters her own experiences, like sleeping (“You just lie there!”) and falling in love with Jess’ dad (Doug Sheehan). She even learns fire safety after decorating a Christmas tree with 12 taper candles and burning the entire living room down. The department store is on the verge of replacing all its mannequins with horrifying faceless ones, but as with most Christmas films, it ends happily: Amy is saved and gets to be human forever.
The IMDb page for A Mom for Christmas lists in their trivia section that Newton-John completed her crying scene in one take, but that shouldn’t be a revelation: Newton-John could do anything, including mastering a role as a mannequin in a TV film she was clearly over-qualified to star in. She’d go on to appear in others, including 1994’s A Christmas Romance and even hosting the children’s series Timeless Tales from Hallmark, all of which are all but entirely forgotten these days. But I’d watch A Mom For Christmas every holiday season on the Disney channel, even drunkenly putting it on for my family one year when I realized someone had uploaded all 91 magical minutes on YouTube.
According to co-star Juliet Sorci Duncan, who played Jessica, Newton-John was unlike anyone she had ever worked with. “Her generosity and kindness were her true superpowers, it just so happened that she was insanely talented and gorgeous as well,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Being around her, you would never know she was a celebrity. We filmed A Mom for Christmas in Ohio and it was Halloween, so Olivia took her daughter, Chloe [Lattanzi], and I trick-or-treating. People would recognize her and invite us in for apple cider. She would accept so graciously, she took so much time to talk to everyone. After we wrapped she made a point to not lose contact. She was the type of person that called to tell me she had breast cancer so I wouldn’t find out in the press. When I had to undergo surgery years later, Olivia was my first visitor. She was so busy but she took the time to be there. There are endless stories like this. She truly had the biggest heart and I am so grateful I got to know her.”
As we remember Newton-John and her most famous roles, let’s also cherish the obscure ones, like the mannequin in A Mom For Christmas. Amy was awkward at life. Breathing and blinking were foreign concepts to her, but she was inquisitive, charming, and loving — and the most endearing mannequin ever portrayed on film.