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Mansfield 66/67


LuckyDan
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Mansfield 66/67 (2017)

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Pull this title up on Tubi and the graphic accompanying the synopsis is a pretty good clue about what is to come, with a frame of a bare-shouldered person in perhaps a pink bandeau top, maybe female, probably male, with long straight blonde hair, a thick wave covering the forehead, eyes closed, mouth open, facing into the text, which reads, Mansfield 66/67 is a "surreal and dark underbelly look at the last two years of blonde bombshell and actress Jayne Mansfield's life." Turns out it covers much more than the last two years. The 66/67 thing is really just a graphic device to show us three consecutive sixes, comme ça: 66/67.

Why? Because the subject of the documentary is really an inquiry into whether Jayne was involved in a sexual-romantic, or somehow serious, or at least an "its complicated' relationship with a notorious San Francisco character from the 60s named Anton LaVey (ne Howard Levey) who seemed to have found a way to get girls to get naked by dressing as the devil and founding the Church of Satan. 

The film begins with a disclaimer that essentially says neither "the subjects, their estates or their family members" want anything to do with any of what follows. 

Organ music plays, a little churchy-sounding. Four singers - two women standing in front of two men dressed as women (facial hair and Adam's apples notwithstanding) - all bewigged à la Barbra Streisand '66, dressed in black nighties, framed in a large central inset which is surrounded by colorful Mondrian-style boxes, look into the camera and sing the following words, which are superimposed on the screen, inviting us to sing along, hymn-style, in the Church of Jayne:

 

Born Vera Jayne Palmer
Becomes Broadway star
Moves to Hollywood
With a 40-G cup bra
Refused [sic] Miss Roquefort cheese
Accepts Miss Photo Flash!
From here to obscurity 
Dies in New Orleans car crash ...

 

As each line is sung, a corresponding photo appears in one of the  boxes, like in "Wild, Wild West." They include a school photo of youthful, happy, brunette Jayne. Poster art from Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? The "Hollywood" sign on the hill. Pin up shots, including one of Jayne looking through a hole in a slice of cheese. Another of her seated in a director's chair, her measurements stenciled where her name should appear. A gossip magazine cover. The car she died in.

Then appears the ever-jocular John Waters, seated in front of a white screen, white-haired, pencil-moustached, addressing his silent, unseen interlocutor. "You can write anything when someone's dead. You can write a whole book of lies and there's nothing [anyone] can do." 

A red-on-black graphic slide reads, "A true story." Then, "Based on rumor and hearsay."

You get the idea. What follows is mostly speculation, some academo-cultural theorizing by people who weren't there, and some genuine fact, intercut with if not rare, some often stunning images of Jayne in both film and still shots. An added and unique element that sets this piece apart is what the wiki entry calls performance art, or what I was going to call interpretive dance vignettes, conceived and performed by students from Leeds-Beckett University. 

The piece as a whole is told with not only questionable theories on Jayne's relationship with LaVey, and the meaning of her life and legacy, but questionable taste, especially where the performance sequences are concerned, which seem to dare the more traditional viewers to complain, about the religious iconoclasm (Playboy magazine as a hymnal) or to wince. That attitude is certainly familiar to traditionalists - they've endured it for some time now - so if the kids were trying to be edgy, they didn't swing quite hard enough. If they were trying to be rude, they landed some blows. Still, kitsch and camp were features of Jayne's aesthetic, so why not tell her story - or a version of it - in that vein?

The opening sequence leading to the titles first misstate, then correct the record.  A female voice speaks over still photos of the crash scene, in what was probably one of the first recordings of the often-repeated and apocryphal legend surrounding her death. This audio fades into a male voice, speaking in newsman cadence, continuing the description. "The three adults in the front seat [Jayne, her boyfriend Sam Brody, and driver Ronald Harrison] were killed instantly. Miss Mansfield was decapitated." 

Abruptly, John Waters corrects. "She was not decapitated. She was scalped. Just the top of her head came off." (There is no elegant way to say it.)

An audio and photo montage follows and serves essentially as an overture, suggesting that at one point this was planned as a musical and stating the themes to be explored, all spoken by the people we are about to meet, including archival footage of the quite serious occultist and purveyor of believe-it-or-not style gossip, Kenneth Anger; and A. J. Benza, whose contributions to the factual aspects are quite valuable; along with a few academics (billed as "Special Guest Stars Dr. So-and-so ") all introduced via audio montage over this photo. 

 

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"I might be making this up" "...rumors of a curse" "Like a movie star gone crazy! What is the matter with you?" "We'll never know." ""Jayne wants to meet Anton Lavey." "I like my devils serious and scary" "So we're left to wonder: Was Jayne's life spinning out of control? Or, did the devil make her do it?" 

The first of the academics, a historian, appears on camera and says "Most of what we know of Jayne's life comes from newspaper coverage." Much of the visual style of this piece indeed includes images of newspaper and magazine headlines clipped scrapbook style and enlarged. 

Jayne herself takes part in telling her story, primarily via film clips strategically edited for her lines to be heard as if in dialogue with or response to the commenters. The first series of clips we see are from her 1955 movie Illegal, where she is seen in a courtroom swearing to tell the truth, followed quickly by a TV appearance where she reacts with surprise at hearing, "This is your life, Jayne Mansfield!"

Old style rock and roll music swells as the opening credits begin, over a dance scene of the Leeds kids jitterbugging. (Yep. Not twisting. Jitterbugging. They're Brits.) Donna Loren, that nice girl from the 60s beach movies, her voice poorly recorded and sounding like a karaoke singer holding the mic way too close and awash in reverb, shouts a parody of "The Girl Can't Help It" with a backing vocal refrain, "She didn't do it. The devil made her do it."

Gradually the image of the dancers is inverted as the camera pans to a reflective floor onto which their garments fall. The rock and roll score gives way to organ music. (We will later learn that LaVey once worked as an organist.) The dancers, now in black period undies, or maybe sleepwear, form a processional and place masquerade masks over their eyes, then black robes. We have left the Church of Jayne, it becomes clear, as the kids kneel before a pentagram, all as a prayer to the various powers of darkness (there are five names intoned but I don't want to type them - "Speak of the devil" you know) is dramatically offered, ending with a half-hearty "Hail Satan!" at which point, cutely, the director's credit appears.

Mmm kay.

. . . . . .

The directors are the husband-and-husband team of David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, who made this documentary to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jayne's death. Aside from the above mentioned commenters, they spoke with several people I had never heard of and won't name here, who noted obvious facts and drew conclusions to fit the biases they professionally espouse. The familiar faces are Tippi Hedren, who has a LaVey connection through her work with animals (LaVey kept a pet lion in his basement); Mamie Van Doren; 60s exploitation actresses and Playboy models Dolly Read and Susan Bernard, (and their centerfold photos); Warhol factory actress Mary Woronov; Peaches Christ, an underground drag performer who appears in full costume; a person billed as "Marilyn," whom I have learned was an 80s pop star who lived with Boy George; and others with incidental connections to the three principals who are Jayne, her divorce attorney and boyfriend Sam Brody, and her possible paramour, possible spiritual advisor Anton LaVey. 

The story is told in seven parts, perhaps to coincide with the deadly sins. The commenters speak earnestly of Jayne and their impressions of her. We get a summary of her rise to fame and an accurate description of her decline, but the documentary comes into full focus when it turns to her awkward effort to hit big once more with her trip to the San Francisco Film Festival in 1966, where it turns out she was not welcome, and where she met LaVey.

There is, despite all the sexy and colorful Jayne imagery, and the 1960s cultural curiosities, something about this piece I was not comfortable with, and after writing about it and giving it a second look, it occurs to me that it often feels as if it has no genuine affection for it's subject. This is especially evident in the performance sequences from the Leeds troupe. Every segment they conceived holds something of Jayne, or their idea of Americana, up to ridicule. In their final segment, a trio of them appear as kids at play, speaking in their natural British accents, reenacting June 29, 1967 using as props spread onto the ottoman at which they kneel, a naked and anatomically correct Barbie doll, a set of Matchbox cars, and Lolita glasses. The male of the trio, appearing as a male, begins to speak in a mock southern accent as the screen is split to show a Mississippi man identified as "Jim Roberts, Undertaker" who tells how the urban legend of decapitation came about, with the Leeds guy mouthing like Gomer Pyle along with him, while one of the girls begins to cry. But why? Maybe it is cleverer than I know and the meaning simply hasn't occured to me yet. That happens.

Truly bothersome to me is the segment in which we learn of the most horrific event of Jayne's life, prior to the final one: The mauling of her son Zoltán by a lion (not LaVey's) and his subsequent hospitalization while Jayne feared for his life, an event worth telling. We learn of it though not through a sober and sympathetic relating of facts, but through the one instance in the piece where animation is used. The full story is told by way of a cute and colorful animated short that begins as a day at the zoo with vivacious Jayne and her kids. After Jayne is distracted by photographers, she notices Zoltán is missing, and our pleasant little cartoon turns out to be a living nightmare.

While crash site photos appear at the beginning, it is toward the end, in a sequence meant to serve as a climax, and the possible fulfillment of a curse, that we see the goriest and most detailed photos. The camera lingers in gruesome close-ups of mangled metal and first responders among the wreckage. Details are not always immediately clear. The scene was dark and chaotic, but we do see, very plainly and very sadly, the lifeless body of a Chihuahua. 

"I never felt it was tragic, her life. Never did I feel it was tragic," Waters says. "She would have wanted to go like that, with blood and guts, and the headline on the front page and a dead Chihuahua," he smiles. "That's her." 

I will note here that Jayne's three children with Mickey Hargitay, sons Miklós and Zoltán, and daughter Mariska, were asleep in the back seat and survived. 

I can't recommend Mansfield 66/67 to anyone who loves Jayne, but even for them there may be some photos and film clips they might not have seen before. It has a low budget feel to it, but not a cheap one. If you like camp and kitsch, 60s núdie models (calling them pinups by that time doesn't seem accurate) horror-chic, drag queens and West coast underground, culture war theorizing from the progressive side, snark in general and iconoclasm in particular, you might want to have a look.

On Tubi

Rated mature

1 hour 25 minutes.


 

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On 8/30/2021 at 7:44 PM, LuckyDan said:

". . . Mansfield 66/67 is a 'surreal and dark underbelly look at the last two years of blonde bombshell and actress Jayne Mansfield's life.' "

Totally baffled why ghoulish vultures, diseased with schadenfreude, glom onto tabloid journalism/reporting and enjoy feasting on the carrion of celebrities whose lives were either tragic and/or horrific or whose lives ended in tragedy and/or horror.

Why am I not surprised that John Waters, The Pied Piper of Bad Taste, is involved with this documentary?

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1 hour ago, Eucalpytus P. Millstone said:

Totally baffled why ghoulish vultures, diseased with schadenfreude, glom onto tabloid journalism/reporting and enjoy feasting on the carrion of celebrities whose lives were either tragic and/or horrific or whose lives ended in tragedy and/or horror.

Why am I not surprised that John Waters, The Pied Piper of Bad Taste, is involved with this documentary?

One thing I did not mention in the post - it was already too damn long and I was sick of thinking about it by then so I didn't edit much - is that this same team also produced Room 237, which explores some of the more outlandish interpretations of The Shining. (That doc is discussed in this very sub-forum a few threads down.) If there is a theme to their body of work, it includes examining crackpot ideas for fun. 

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I'm inclined to believe that your commendable review is probably better than its subject. Yet despite your sterling write-up, I shall still skip watching Mansfield 66/67.

After reading the IMDb profile on that "documentary musical" and seeing the names Kenneth Anger, "Peaches Christ," and the de rigueur John Waters, and also learning that the directors are a married couple, my reaction to the The Ebersole Hughes Company production is, "Well, that's typical."

By which I mean that there is a distinct type of homosexual who just loves, Loves, LOVES  vampirically sucking on The Rich and Famous, digging through their filthy/glitzy laundry;  picking at the plastic surgery scars and scabs on "Beautiful People"; dishin' dirt on celebrities (Yoo-hoo, Kathy Griffin Fan Club!); and giddily wallowing in and gorging on gossipy, ugly, and mean-spirited, rumor-sodden tabloid trash.

There's no accounting for taste . . . and tastelessness.

Cue The Notorious ARL:

"If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me." -- Alice Roosevelt Longworth

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50 minutes ago, Eucalpytus P. Millstone said:

By which I mean that there is a distinct type of homosexual who just loves, Loves, LOVES  vampirically sucking on The Rich and Famous, digging through their filthy/glitzy laundry;  picking at the plastic surgery scars and scabs on "Beautiful People"; dishin' dirt on celebrities (Yoo-hoo, Kathy Griffin Fan Club!); and giddily wallowing in and gorging on gossipy, ugly, and mean-spirited, rumor-sodden tabloid trash.

That's pretty much what I was getting at when I discussed who might enjoy it. It is catty. 

Kenneth Anger, whom I had not actually seen before, comes off as a calm, quiet type, but then he is an old man now. (I first learned of him as part of Led Zeppelin/Jimmy Page lore - Jimmy's wife Charlotte kicked him out of their house and he is said to have cursed Jimmy for that, and for Jimmy's not finishing a score he had promised.)

A.J Benza's presence lends it the credibility that the gender and queer studies academics, I suspect, were actually brought in to provide. Their comments are often vapid and almost instantly forgettable. 

But it is the performance art inserts that give it attitude you describe. They even upstage LaVey, a card-carrying devil worshipper, who we can never take seriously to begin with.

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  • 2 months later...

Part of the problem in evaluating anything about Jayne Mansfield is that after all these years there still doesn't seem to any generally accepted accounting of her life to which something like this film can be compared. There's a new biography this year which Amazon calls "the first definitive biography" and a "joyful account", so to my mind it's immediately suspect. In the decade following her death there were three "major" Mansfield books, one looking at her (approvingly) through a feminist perspective, one by a (female) columnist which was basically a fan tribute, and one by her press secretary which essentially went for the jugular with graphic stories of child and drug abuse. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle but, as you quoted John Waters saying, you can say anything about the dead and get away with it. The Anton LaVey stuff I always felt was just an example of like reaching out to like, ie: two media whores who could both benefit from the publicity. Plus she did seem to have an attraction to men with a dark side, at least later in life.

You did such a good job of distilling the essence of the film that I feel as though I could pass on it, but I'll probably end up watching. I do have a fond regard for her based on the work she was able to do when she was still working with "real" filmmakers and I always felt that she was in on the joke which she understood she was becoming. Unfortunately, the longer that went on the less able she was to control her image. I remember Johnny Carson and Ed teasing the hell out of her and, though she was totally good-natured about it, she may have felt trapped by the image she'd helped create and exploit. I'm both a fan and a homosexual, though hopefully not in the category which Mr. Millstone spent a whole paragraph describing so enthusiastically. I especially don't have a problem with "the de rigeur John Waters", since he's probably the one commentator I would trust to put the mess that the movie apparently is into some kind of perspective. He's very precise about his likes and dislikes but he understands mess and, I think, he understands Jayne. Kenneth Anger maybe not so much, though I suppose he's earned his place at this particular table. Peaches Christ seems to exist in a niche of drag specializing in film parody, so I'd be willing to listen.

Anyway, there was lots of food for thought in your review of the film and I appreciate the heads-up. Love of film can take us to many odd and unexpected places, but there's generally at least a kernel of something to take away from them.

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On 11/17/2021 at 8:35 AM, DougieB said:

... I'll probably end up watching. I do have a fond regard for her based on the work she was able to do when she was still working with "real" filmmakers and I always felt that she was in on the joke which she understood she was becoming. Unfortunately, the longer that went on the less able she was to control her image.

That's a better observation than most I recall from the film, Dougie. I'd be interested in your thoughts if you take a look. There are many snippets for genuine Jayne appreciators to enjoy. 

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On 11/19/2021 at 10:30 AM, LuckyDan said:

That's a better observation than most I recall from the film, Dougie. I'd be interested in your thoughts if you take a look. There are many snippets for genuine Jayne appreciators to enjoy. 

My overall impression was pretty much the same as yours: there were no particular signs of real affection or even respect for Jayne, including from most of the talking heads. She made herself an easy target because of her image and lifestyle (and because of the mistakes she made throughout her career) and, even though the movie wasn't a complete pile-on, there seemed to be a certain glee in holding a flawed person up to ridicule. Granted, there were some great images of her in her prime, but then came the tear-down and the focus on the bad press. I suspect the movie intentionally focused on those final, chaotic years as an excuse to exploit the tabloid non-sense that increasingly surrounded her, specifically the spectacularly ill-conceived misalliance with Anton Lavey. I'll have to admit I wasn't aware of how enduring that relationship now seems to have been, how he periodically reappeared in her life. But even the publicly staged "summit" at a restaurant to negotiate "the curse" (which had been gaining traction in the press) seemed like a stunt, like they were just up to their old tricks. The filmmakers wanted to give way to much credence to that nonsense, since it was the whole justification for what they were doing, the 66/6 angle you pointed out. Anyway, Sam Brody seems to have been a more malign influence on her life and career than a carnival geek like Lavey but the movie pretty much chose to ignore his intemperance and characterize it as a "curse" beyond his control. 

The performance art/interpretive dance aspect was puzzling. At first I thought that the two guys in the quartet which got the most attention were maybe the two filmmakers themselves, angling to give themselves face-time in their own movie, but then I remembered you had credited a troupe from Leeds University. Regardless, it distracted from rather than enhanced the narrative and basically had no business being there. What you said about them ridiculing Americana in general seems true, but even with pretty soft targets they're at too far a remove to really land anything. Not one of them had any charisma to speak of, and there they were interpreting a hugely charismatic figure like Jayne. The one time it worked at all was in the recreation of the title sequence from The Girl Can't Help It, with the dancers in long shot in front of colored backgrounds. But then came the Donna Loren song, which you described perfectly. With more attention and polish it could have worked in its own terms. Nancy Sinatra did a song for Another Gay Movie (2006) and turned out a peppy, anthemic pop tune which was a credit to her as a still viable artist. I would have wished the same for Donna, but apparently the filmmakers were willing to settle for considerably less and just wanted her name attached. Likewise with the commentators, who seemed to be there mostly to pad the credits. Even John Waters basically repeated what he's said before, though his shock that she spoke five languages was a refreshingly candid moment. (I'm not sure I agree with John that she would have wanted to die that way; as you said, her kids were in peril.) Most of the commentators were just having a field day with speculation, but the movie itself is speculative so the more the merrier, I guess. The fact that they took this approach rather than a journalistic one tells us what we need to know about their intentions and it explains a lot about the results.

 

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Yeah. Mickey was such a good match and incredibly supportive. It may have been the old problem of career trajectories going in opposite directions.  Or maybe he was too deferential; after him she seemed to go for guys who asserted more control over her, so maybe it was a need which wasn't being met (or an itch that wasn't being scratched). As her career started to evaporate she spent more time away from home in cheapo European productions, so that could have been a factor too. Mickey called her "My Jaynie". Sweet.

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