Director: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes
Writer: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes
Producer: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes, Larra Anderson
Stars: Kenneth Anger, A.J. Benza, Susan Bernard, Peaches Christ, Cheryl Dunye, Tippi Hedren, Anton LaVey, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, John Waters, Mary Woronov
Pop culture personalities discuss Jayne Mansfield’s relationship with Anton LaVey, High Priest of the Church of Satan.
Marilyn Monroe may reign as the most well known, though a compelling case can be made that Jayne Mansfield embodies cinema’s quintessential blonde bombshell more. Mansfield’s beauty was overmatched by brains she hid behind a wink to sell a sexpot stereotype for a ticket to superstardom, with her supreme celebrity status often overlooked or outright forgotten by many modern movie audiences.
As the talking heads of P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ fascinatingly feisty documentary “Mansfield 66/67” put it, Jayne defined ‘campy’ before ‘camp’ was even a branded concept. Her shrill shriek, conical bras, and signature strut defined the exterior while a magnetic personality anxious to overdose on attention made her offscreen antics as marketable as her onscreen acting. Mansfield practically cast the mold for putting sex, drugs, multiple husbands, and sensational headlines on the standard starlet agenda for maximum limelight exposure.
Forget Kevin Bacon. Jayne’s popularity and pop culture presence ran so deep that you can play ‘Two Degrees of Mansfield’ and link her to everyone from Lee Harvey Oswald assassin Jack Ruby to all four Beatles.
But Jayne Mansfield’s most curious connection was to Anton Szandor LaVey, high priest and founder of the notorious Church of Satan. Mansfield’s involvement with the infamous ‘Black Pope’ is precisely the type of salaciously sordid story for which the adage was invented, “if it ain’t true, it ought to be.” Part performance art pomp, part gossipy romp, “Mansfield 66/67” chronicles kooky conjecture around the duo’s devilish dalliances as “a true story based on rumor and hearsay,” the two least reliable, yet most juicily entertaining, sources for telling such a tawdry tabloid tale.
PBS wouldn’t touch the speciously speculative approach of this documentary with a 400-foot pole any more than it would be onboard with the atypical aesthetics. For one thing, “Mansfield 66/67” creates segues and B-roll out of a student theater troupe performing interpretive dance numbers, which sounds odd out of context, yet is no less out of the ordinary than anything in the story itself. Ken Burns it isn’t, but unorthodox style suits this film fine.
You know you’re in for an unusual experience when “Mansfield 66/67” starts by summarizing Jayne’s entire life in a 30-second song sung by a quartet that includes a bearded man in a blonde woman’s wig. Don’t let such disguises fool you, however. “Mansfield 66/67” puts on appearances of the same tongue-in-cheek air of self-satirizing whimsy Jayne herself promoted externally. But even interviewees who are uncertain of the truth in their own anecdotes recognize that sinister stakes lie beneath the last two years of Mansfield’s life, much like how something seemingly sinister bound Jayne and Anton together.
Fulfilling the tagline’s promise, “Mansfield 66/67” never comes close to anything more intimate than a secondhand, and usually third or fourteenthhand, account of what maybe did or didn’t happen between Mansfield and LaVey. That’s a colossal component of the film’s abundantly charismatic charm. “Mansfield 66/67” features everyone from drag queens to academic professors connecting guesswork dots between black magic curses, Charles Manson cult members, crazy car accidents, and unverifiable legends with Jayne and Anton inexplicably linked at the center of every throughline. By the time “The Birds” star Tippi Hedren lays out links between LaVey’s pet lion, her daughter Melanie Griffith’s mauling, Mansfield’s son’s mauling, and William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist,” your head will be spinning like Regan MacNeil’s from the delightfully implausible implications of how every unlikelihood supposedly intertwines.
The intricate background building from LaVey casting a curse on Mansfield’s abusive beau to Jayne’s gruesome death by association has absolutely no trouble casting its own spell on viewers. “Mansfield 66/67” nevertheless infuses all the snappiness it can to the point of being hyperactive. Tons of vintage photos and archival clips are constantly enhanced by visual effects and a never-ending musical score eternally pulsating underneath. It’s an active movie made more energetic by interjecting comedic musical numbers keeping inferences of death and devil worship from getting too depressingly dark.
Some of that experimental effort ends up submerged in silliness undermining how well the seriousness holds it own. A Mr. Magoo-like cartoon interlude distastefully recreating the traumatic scene of Mansfield’s son being mauled by a private zoo lion is particularly dodgy. And although I can good-humouredly support simulating car crashes with Hot Wheels toys as keeping with the film’s overall spirit, I can definitely do without the daffy kid insultingly echoing a Southern drawl over an interview with the folksy undertaker who handled Mansfield’s corpse. How the filmmakers thought this was fun or funny I have no idea.
Glib misfires are fortunately few and very far between. While using the movie to write a factual report on Mansfield or LaVey would be undeniably ill-advised, “Mansfield 66/67” still satisfies as edutitional (not a word) entertainment of the highest order, through both the madcap material and its theatrically dramatized presentation. It couldn’t be more fitting for such a wonderfully weird story to be creatively captured within such a wonderfully weird movie.
Review Score: 75