Wednesday, October 25, 2017

NEW JAYNE MANSFIELD DOCUMENTARY CAPTURES HER KITSCH AND CONTROVERSY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey from the new documentary MANSFIELD 66/67. (copyright 2017)

Was Jayne Mansfield the Kim Kardashian of her time? The new documentary MANSFIELD 66/67 makes the argument without uttering those words. It lets its audience fill in such blanks. After all, as showcased in the terrific new film opening this weekend from directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, Mansfield was an actress known as much for her publicity seeking and camera hogging schemes as for her talent. Plus, Mansfield defined her era’s sexual ideal the same way that Kardashian does her generation, flaunting a cartoonish sex appeal and larger-than-life figure. It makes this new movie not only a fascinating study of history but a relevant editorial on how fleeting and shallow fame can be in Tinsel Town. No matter what the decade.

Long before Mrs. West was ‘breaking the internet’ repeatedly, Mansfield herself was reaping all kinds of magazine covers, gossip column ink, and PR from her overtly sexual schemes. Mansfield was a talented comic actress, no doubt, sort of a caricature of Marilyn Monroe in her way, and yet her greatest talent was in self-promotion. Long before sex tapes could turn an heiress’ best friend into a multimillionaire, Mansfield was using her sexuality to climb the ladder to success. Coming from the world of beauty pageants and modeling, and a significant presence in the early pages of Playboy, Mansfield made sure she became an icon of the era, and a physical representation of the larger-than-life industry in La-la Land.

Interestingly, the actress did have the talent as well as the body. Her comedic skills received raves when she starred on Broadway in the romantic comedy WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER in 1955? She received rave reviews and Hollywood quickly cast her in the film version of it. Not only were her 40-21-35 measures eye-catching, but her personality took the big screen by storm too. Her comic timing, her warmth, and an innate ability to make fun of herself, endeared her to audiences and Tinsel Town executives alike. Her tireless work ethic also appealed to filmmakers who were tired of dealing with the emotional juggernaut and erratic on-set behavior of troubled rival Monroe. 


Mansfield soon became in demand, as well as a household name, at least with most of the male movie-going audience. Amongst her best credits were starring turns in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, THE WAYWARD BUS, and KISS THEM FOR ME, where she received star billing alongside the legendary Cary Grant.

Unfortunately, from there, Mansfield’s career started to waver. Age is never kind to actresses, let alone sex symbols. Plus, tastes were changing as the nation veered into the 60’s. A more naturalistic, even hippie style feminine look started to take hold, and the platinum-coiffed Mansfield suddenly seemed as outdated as her leopard spot and polka dot bikinis. Hurting her resume as well were her numerous pregnancies which kept her from cultivating her career. Ultimately, Mansfield’s greatest productions were the five children she had from her three marriages. (She was married three times in 15 years.) 

As fame waned, Mansfield made all sorts of attempts to stay in the limelight. She recorded a pop music album and proved to be a very fine singer. Mansfield also recorded the novelty disc Jayne Mansfield: Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me. There, she defied her dumb blonde image by passionately reciting the Bard’s sonnets and poems against classical music in the background. Few knew it, but Mansfield was actually one smart cookie. Her IQ was measured at 149. Indeed, her looks were quite deceiving. (She also was a natural brunette, but then no one on God's green earth has ever had such platinum tresses naturally.)


Still, the bimbo image made it difficult for Mansfield to be taken seriously in some circles, and after a while, she started to just give in and go with it. She created a nightclub act where she sang, shimmied and cooed her way through pop standards. The aging actress even agreed to help launch grocery stores in the LA area, and attend whatever red-carpet movie premiere ticket she could get her hands on. Apparently, the desperate actress even crashed some.  

Her most stunning move was in 1966 and 1967 when she started dabbling in occultism alongside Anton LaVey, the founder and head of America’s Church of Satan. More of a hedonistic outlet for her narcissistic excesses, Mansfield nonetheless allowed herself to be photographed performing Satanic rituals alongside LaVey in full devil’s garb. Such shenanigans earned her as much bad PR as positive ones, but some believe any publicity is good publicity. Mansfield, at that point in her career, obviously thought anything would help.

All of this is featured in the documentary, but what makes MANSFIELD 66/67 so much more than an expert A & E network profile is the fun and kitsch that the filmmakers add to their film. Ebersole and Hughes interview dozens of name celebrities about Mansfield and some of them are outright coups. John Waters provides some of the wittier and more insightful barbs. And you’d expect such a doc to include 50’s sexpot Mamie Van Doren and tabloid journalist A.J. Benza, but when’s the last time Kenneth Anger gave such an exclusive on-camera interview? The author/occultist/filmmaker famously put Mansfield on the cover of his landmark 1965 tell-all Hollywood Babylon and here he provides a ton of insight into what drove her regarding the relationship she had with LaVey. (He suggests they had a sexual affair without saying outright that they did.)

An interpretive dance scene from MANSFIELD 66/67.
This film also utilizes a treasure trove of photos and film that have rarely been seen before to help chronicle all aspects of Mansfield’s life. And for those moments that the filmmakers don’t have such pics, they create their own content, often in hilarious ways. Documenting some of the crazier moments, Ebersole and Hughes  employ staged recreations, even incorporating some cheeky animated storytelling. They also use interpretative dance, tongues and toes planted firmly in cheek of course, as well as some original songs written for the doc to highlight various parts of Mansfield’s sorted history. It all keeps even the heavier moments from bogging down and becoming depressing. 

That’s especially helpful during the documentary’s final section where it delves into Mansfield’s notorious death from a car crash in 1967. She was in Biloxi, MI for an engagement at a supper club when the Buick carrying her, her companion Sam Brody, and three of her children – Miklós, Zoltán and Mariska – crashed into a tractor-trailer at 2:20 in the AM. The adults in the front seat were killed instantly, along with one of Mansfield’s beloved Chihuahua’s, yet the sleeping children in the back seat survived with only minor injuries. The film shows off plenty of lurid accident police photos, even an utterly unseemly one of the lifeless dog.

Mansfield with LaVey in 1967.
For decades, the rumor that Mansfield was decapitated in that accident added an unsavory notoriety to her biography, but that simply wasn’t the truth. Those death scene shots caught one with her platinum blonde wig amongst the wreckage, leading to the rumors that it was her whole head. The filmmakers here make a point to clear up the falsehood once and for all by including documentation, not to mention film of an interview with Mansfield’s embalmer. Of course, it is only fitting that the life of a woman so public would achieve some of her greatest fame in death, and that fact is not lost in this film. Arguably, it is the cherry on the top of its darkly comic assessment of the notorious star.

Missing from this doc, and rather conspicuously at that, are any interviews with her closest family members. Especially interesting is the very little said about TV star Mariska Hargitay, Mansfield's  daughter from her second marriage to bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. Mariska overcame her troubled childhood with her mother to build one of the more incredible careers in television. (She's been one of its top stars and highest paid actresses for over a decade.) Granted, I didn’t expect such an interview here, but omitting more mention of her seems like an oversight.

In 1967, film critic and trash film expert Whitney Williams wrote of Mansfield in Variety: "her personal life out-rivaled any of the roles she played." This film argues that case as well, making for a timely lesson on Hollywood and the cost of fame. The release of this film can only benefit from all the Harvey Weinstein talk and how hard the town is on female talent. Jayne Mansfield was truly one of those talents – gorgeous, funny, and whip smart. Still, that wasn’t enough, and even making whatever sort of pact with the devil couldn’t help her as much as she had hoped.

The cover of Kenneth Anger's notorious 1965 tell-all featuring Mansfield falling out of her dress.
Dying early, in a lurid and unforgettable way, certainly did manage to cement Mansfield's place in the pantheon of Hollywood celebrity in a way the rest of her career could not, but was that too large a price to pay for poor Jayne? Hmmm...

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