Harsh reality and high camp clash in the latest documentary from P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes.
The allure of fame and the cult of celebrity can be intoxicating, addictive elements, as evidenced by the decidedly offbeat documentary Mansfield 66/67. Directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes (Hit So Hard) examine the final two years of the life of sexpot starlet Jayne Mansfield and her much-gossiped-about relationship with Anton LaVey, the self-proclaimed head of the Church of Satan.
The main crux of Mansfield 66/67 is how Mansfield — her career in decline and a family in tow at this point in her life — sought to regain her notoriety. Aligning herself with a fellow attention-seeker (to put it mildly) like LaVey was a sure-fire recipe for headline-grabbing. And that was certainly proven to be the case in the end, when rumors spread that her car crash death was actually the work of a curse LaVey placed on her then-boyfriend Sam Brody.
Ebersole and Hughes offer up as many outlandish stories and theories as possible, and the interviewees offer a wide range of opinions as to how much is fact and fiction. This is sheer pulp entertainment, meant to titillate more than educate, and the filmmakers certainly succeed in that area. They refer to their project as “a true story based on rumor and hearsay,” and they are not above unabashedly dipping their toes into the waters of bad taste. The worst infraction of this is an animated sequence that depicts how one of Mansfield’s sons was mauled by a lion.
Mansfield 66/67 takes a camp approach to the proceedings, which doesn’t always work. For me, camp succeeds best when it is unintentional, and here the deliberate attempts come off as heavy-handed and baffling. For example, a group of men and women wearing blond wigs serving as both an interpretive dance troupe and a Greek chorus doesn’t add any perspective to the goings-on.
The film succeeds instead when it takes its freewheeling, pop-culture microscope approach more seriously. Clips from news broadcasts, television show appearances, and Mansfield’s movies offer an entry-level look at the star and how much she adored fame and wealth — her ostentatious “Pink Palace” home was a shining monument to that. The film also provides basic notes about her troubled relationships, substance abuse, and other difficulties in her life.
It doesn’t set out to answer any of its own questions, though. No family members are interviewed, and Mamie Van Doren, the only person on camera who actually knew Mansfield, doesn’t offer much in the way of new insight. The rest of the talking heads consist of such cult film luminaries as John Waters (who is perhaps the most level-headed of the bunch when it comes to the stock taken in outré theories), Mary Woronov, Kenneth Anger, Tippi Hedren, and Peaches Christ, plus UK pop star Marilyn and some academics.
Mansfield 66/67 is generally an appealing, fast-paced documentary that sensationalizes a woman who lived for headlines and attention. We can guess the subject would have loved how it gets her name out in the public eye once again, now to a new generation of moviegoers and curiosity seekers who have yet to discover her charms as “the world’s smartest dumb blonde.” Aside from what feels like a bit of camp padding here and there, the film is worth seeking out if you’re interested in larger-than-life celebrities, Hollywood tragedies, and the study of pop culture.