“A true story based on rumor and hearsay” is how the filmmakers label “Mansfield 66/67,” a campy disquisition on the expropriation of Jayne Mansfield’s image in the final years of her life. Note the word “expropriation,” since the real Mansfield is singularly absent. Directors Todd Hughes and P. David Ebersole interview minor pop culture denizens with little insight; overreaching academics, who shoe-horn the star into their theories; and even Mamie Van Doren (less than illuminating). Fortunately John Waters and Mary Woronov have meaningful things to say about the Mansfield phenomenon, though everything is undercut by ultra-silly camp interludes featuring men and women in blonde wigs doing interpretive dances and such. There’s value in examining the myth of Mansfield and its impact, but here poor Jayne herself is lost. Queer fests and VOD will generate some attention.
Hughes and Ebersole (executive producers on the vastly superior “Room 237”) state upfront that no family members were asked to participate, as their interest lies in perception over fact. Given that Mansfield herself seemed to live for publicity, no matter what kind, perhaps she wouldn’t have been displeased at the result – after all, they’re talking about her, and maybe that’s enough. Yet the documentary doesn’t entirely dispense with the bare bones of her life, including marriages and affairs, motherhood, alcoholism and drugs, etc., which makes the whole thing an uneasy balance that just gets muddled in invented scandals that weren’t especially interesting when they were propounded, let alone now. At least she’s a far more appealing figure than such latter-day attention-hounds as Paris Hilton or the Kardashians.
The filmmakers are most interested in Mansfield’s final years, when her star had significantly faded (she was still only in her early 30s) and the hunger for publicity became more desperate. Earlier periods aren’t exactly ignored, but they’re present only to set the scene: her position as a budget Marilyn Monroe knock-off (which, let’s face it, denigrates Monroe’s brilliance), her cantilevered measurements, her much-vaunted ability to speak five languages and coax notes out of a fiddle. There was always a freak-show air when such achievements were presented, akin to watching a cymbal-playing monkey: We were meant to be amazed that a busty blonde could even hold a violin, let alone cause it to make a sound. Mansfield was a punchline in ways Monroe never was, and unlike Marilyn, Jayne invited the jokes – about her figure, her tacky taste, her squeal, her Pink Palace.
So when her career was going belly-up, no wonder she linked her name with the latest publicity whore, First Church of Satan founder Anton LeVay. Dressed in a ludicrous devil costume that wouldn’t frighten a party of 4-year-olds, LeVay made a minor splash with his satanic mumbo-jumbo and earned a tiny footnote for himself in the annals of the Swinging Sixties – though as artist Matt Momchilov succinctly states, on the spectrum of evil, LeVay was more Count Chocula than Charles Manson. “Mansfield 66/67” spends far too much time on LeVay and the rumor that the curse he placed on the star’s abusive boyfriend, Sam Brody, resulted in their fatal car crash.
Since camp revels in excess and outrageous juxtapositions, associating such a gruesome end with a demonic curse adds to Mansfield’s pink-toned luster. The directors interview various academics (with “PhD” prominently attached to their names) who make generic comments about the actress’s position straddling the conservative 1950s and the free-wheeling ’60s, but really only Woronov and Waters provide insight, since both are able to cut through the sensationalized nonsense and say something meaningful. Kenneth Anger cagily discusses LeVay, Tippi Hedren is incongruously brought in to talk about LeVay’s lion (which appeared with Hedren in “Roar”), and “cinemashrink” Jane Alexander Stewart proffers asinine psychobabble. Van Doren is the only person in the documentary who actually knew Mansfield, but her brief screen time provides zero perspective. Through it all, Jayne remains nothing but a cipher.
It’s anyone’s guess why Hughes and Ebersole thought it was a good idea to pepper their film with campy dance numbers and a blonde-tressed Greek chorus that neglects the one job Greek choruses are meant to do: provide valuable commentary. A cartoon recreation of Mansfield and family at the zoo, when her son Zoltan was mauled, is beyond bad taste (and not in a good, campy way); happily, the filmmakers lifted the bland but inoffensive car crash scene from TV’s “The Jayne Mansfield Story” rather than staging one themselves.