Jayne Mansfield helped define a generation of sex appeal in the 1950s with her meteoric rise to fame. Much more than a Marilyn Monroe knock-off, she had a knack for camp that inspired just as many people as her looks. When the sixties rolled along, she struggled to hold onto her fame. The changing culture and her own retreat into domestic life made it difficult to stay in the spotlight. Not long before her truly tragic and horrific death, Mansfield became acquainted with Anton LaVey, the enigmatic founder of the Church of Satan. Just how deep did she flirt with the dark side? And did it bring about her death?
Mansfield 66/67, the new documentary by P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, examines this episode in Mansfield’s life and the impact it might have had on her. To tell the story, they assembled an impressive motley crew including the likes of John Waters, Mary Woronov, Tippi Hedren, Mamie Van Doren, Kenneth Anger, and Peaches Christ, along with scholars of film and gender studies. Their anecdotes, analysis, and gossip bring Mansfield back to life for the film as we learn about this curious pairing of her and LaVey.
The film starts with a kinetic introduction to all things Mansfield, bringing the uninitiated into the fold while pleasing those already quite familiar and enamored with the star. The mixture of film clips and the love with which the interviewees discuss Mansfield make it easy to see how she captivated so many. Ebersole and Hughes hook viewers immediately. If you don’t want to run out and watch all her films afterwards, something much be wrong with you. There isn’t a better celebration of Mansfield than what’s presented here.
The playful and impressive momentum slows as we reach her introduction to LaVey. Not much is known about the extent of their relationship. Like the film’s tagline says, it’s rumor and hearsay. Regrettably the film isn’t able to confirm or dispel any of the conjecture. Perhaps the pair had an affair. Perhaps it was just a publicity stunt. Maybe LaVey really did put a curse on Mansfield’s boyfriend. No one knows, at least no one interviewed here. It’s frustrated to be teased by such a compelling and unexpected coupling and not find out the truth of it, but this film is paying as much tribute to the tabloid culture that obsessed over Mansfield as they are the woman herself. Ultimately the truth is irrelevant because what we imagine took place is already such a juicy story.
The choice to blend the interviews and archival footage with interpretive dance numbers, animation, and the like was a curious one. Much of it fell flat while bits like the animated sequence worked on it’s own, it did not service the film as a whole and felt a little like padding. It certainly has a camp aesthetic that can be appreciated, but I’m not sure it services the subject well. I could have listened to the interviewees discuss Mansfield for hours more because everything they said was so entertaining and compelling. Another layer ultimately wasn’t needed and occasionally was a distraction.
The best Hollywood stories are too good to be true. The same can be said for talents like Jayne Mansfeld. She lived a life like no one else and this documentary is a fierce devotion to that life.
Mansfield 66/67 opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre on October 27, 2017.