‘Mansfield 66/67’ reviewed

❉ Essential viewing for anyone with an interest in that decade of Hollywood Babylon when boobs were big, voices were squeaky, women were objects and brains were avulsed by tractor trailers.

“She just did it for the photo ops!” – John Waters, explaining Jayne Mansfield’s enthusiasm for Satanism whilst also summing up her entire life.

Oh, Jayne Mansfield, tragic blonde bombshell and Aphrodite whose youth will never be withered by age, at least according to P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ new documentary. Actually an incredibly smart and well-educated polymath able to speak five languages, she chose to embrace the peroxide and flaunt her pulchritudinous figure for the sake of fame and fortune. Or, more likely, as an antidote to her co-dependent personality and fragile ego. As always with these things, it didn’t work. Realising her power over men, she always wanted more, more, MORE while never knowing a good thing when she had it and always moving on, often marrying or forming relationships with the worst possible person. She also changed religion as often as she changed her stilettos.

Until, that is, she met Satanist Anton LaVey (who, as Dr Eileen Jones points out, looked like the kind of devil you’d find in an old George Melies movie), who was just as desperate for fame and publicity as she was. “Nude on his alter!” declares mystic and experimental film maker Kenneth Anger, sounding like he’s describing a late-era Ed Wood skin flick. We see a montage of photos of LaVey sporting a variety of daft evil villain outfits complete with horns whilst surrounded by women wearing nothing but pubic hair and beehive hairdos. LaVey is a fascinating figure who comes across as if someone made him up, which, of course, they did; he made himself up. As Anger says, “Anton was a showman and his concept of Satanism was show business!”

Having got through all the Mansfield biographical stuff, the film settles into its groove by examining the relationship between the desperate-for-validation starlet and her mentor-in-fiendishness. We learn how the charismatic LaVey captivated Mansfield and made her an honorary Priestess (and it really was purely honorary), and his disapproval of her controlling partner Sam Brody, who’s portrayed as a nasty piece of work if ever there was one. Indeed, Mansfield’s dependence on him was more than just romantic; he controlled her business affairs and towards the end of her life, we see him perpetually present during interviews, sitting close by, leaning in obtrusively as she answers questions about sensitive subjects like the Vietnam war.

The one time we see Mansfield really drop her blonde bombshell facade and allow a little of the articulate, intelligent woman she really was to peek out is when she breaks down in tears as she describes her encounter with a 25-year-old soldier after he’d had his leg blown off, but there’s Brody, watching her like a hawk, less hanging on her every word and more making sure she doesn’t put a foot wrong for the sake of her image. Through the testimony of a mix of academics and notable Hollywood nutcases, you get the impression he saw her as little more than an asset, whereas LaVey at least actually respected her as a human being, but, like Mansfield herself, had become too wrapped up in his own image to be a fully rounded human being himself, lurking, as he did, in his black-painted house, which he’d converted into his Church of Satan.

Having started off as a humble police photographer, he rapidly rose to become a cult figure by holding theatrical ceremonies at his “church” with lashing of nudity, and by consulting on numerous horror movies, though the long-held legend that he played the Devil in Rosemary’s Baby is dispelled (and he really didn’t; that was actually Clay Tanner). As we all know, LaVey famously put a curse on Brody, which eventually led to the horrific car crash that killed the couple, along with their driver. The resulting head trauma would make David Lynch flinch.

It’s not like I’m giving away the ending, of course; that’s a foregone conclusion. It’s the camp theatricality and its horrifying end that makes the whole saga so salaciously appealing. Add to the heady mix a Satanist, a lion mauling, and various bizarre coincidences (or were they???) and you have the archetypal Hollywood tragedy.

For the most part, the collection of talking heads, stills, home movie footage, and film clips is absorbing, but all this is undermined somewhat by the inclusion of bizarrely redundant interpretive dance numbers and theatrical vignettes that really do nothing other than interrupt the narrative flow. Mercifully, these are short, though why anyone thought it necessary to keep cutting to a bunch of drama students faffing about in blonde wigs when they had the likes of Mamie Van Doren, John Waters, Kenneth Anger and cult movie badass Mary Woronov on hand is beyond me (I must confess to giving an involuntary cheer whenever she turns up in anything). Tippi Hedren even pops up to tell the story of how LaVey’s lion came to star in Roar (1981) after he grew too big and fierce to be kept in the basement! There are also a couple of flash cartoons to illustrate events that have not only already been described but shown through newspaper clippings as well.

If the highpoints are these relatively conventional interviews with highly unconventional and deeply entertaining people, the lowest point is when the film literally starts riffing on itself and we’re subjected to a young British actor doing an over-the-top southern drawl to recite the words of various reporters, accident investigators and morticians describing the state of Mansfield’s body following her fatal, possibly curse-induced car crash, as real footage of the people he’s imitating plays next to him via split screen editing. It’s a sequence that begs to be chilling—upsetting—even. For a subject this tragically camp, you want to REVEL in the DRAMA. Unfortunately it botches the emotional climax of the movie, and it’s made even worse by the fact that the actor’s script doesn’t exactly match the actual words spoken by his real world counterparts who should have been left to speak for themselves.

That said, it’s essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in that decade of Hollywood Babylon glitzy tat when boobs were big, voices were squeaky, women were objects and brains were avulsed by tractor trailers. It’s the type of thing Channel 4 used to show on Sunday nights that made the prospect of going back to school the next day a lot easier for us budding film and black magic enthusiasts, but which these days one has to actively seek out. It’s worth sitting through the occasional, discretely packaged diversions for the high-camp soap operatic real life drama that rises to a level of horror and hysteria that fiction very rarely has the balls to aspire to.

❉ MANSFIELD 66/67 is released by Peccadillo Pictures on DVD/VOD on 25 June 2018, RRP £9.99.

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