In the Sixties, Marilyn Monroe’s one-time rival Jayne Mansfield was a falling starlet, better known for her off-screen antics and wardrobe malfunctions than for her on-screen appearances, and on June 29, 1967, her life, already metaphorically a car wreck, ended in a real one. This was only a year after she had been photographed for a publicity stunt with Anton LaVey, the equally attention-courting head of the Church of Satan who allegedly had cursed Mansfield’s partner Sam Brody with death, precisely, by car accident (Brody was killed alongside Mansfield in the crash).
After a breezy recap of her early success, Mansfield 66/67 focuses, as its punningly Satanic title suggests, on the sex bomb’s final years, and on that strange convergence of diabolism and death that makes the perfect headline. The film was originally conceived as a narrative feature (The Devil Made Me Do It), but when writing/directing/producing partners P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes were unable to secure financing, they opted instead to turn their materials into a documentary. Not that Mansfield 66/67 is any conventional collation of facts. Rather, it revels gleefully in privileging gossip, rumour and scandal over truth – but then, it concerns a woman who worshipped at the tabloid altar of publicity, and made an endless performance of her fictionalised self for anyone who would worship her with a camera or a few column inches.
Besides the fatal car crash, other collisions dominate the film: the clashes and contradictions of buttoned-up Catholicism and a more sex-positive devilry, and of an iconic ‘dumb blonde’ with an IQ of 163 (and fluency in five languages), who always ran a fine line between being exploited and empowered, and was (as columnist A.J.Benza puts it) “glamour and tragedy all wrapped up in one being.” The film also shows the very different values of the 1950s and 1960s meeting head-on, as Mansfield’s increasing marginalisation within changing times becomes a part of her narrative of trashy martyrdom, with feminist academics left arguing the toss over her significance as a cultural archetype.
Inspired by Mansfield’s own pioneering sense of camp, Ebersole and Hughes transform their subject’s life (and death) into knowingly tacky farce (with John Waters and other talking heads providing the often snarky commentary). The playful tone is set from the beginning, as a co-ed quartet of students from Leeds Beckett University, all dressed in blonde wigs, summarise Mansfield’s lifetime achievements in a chirpy song. Other details of her biography will be presented in cross-dressing interpretative dance, and ’60s-style animation, while her own filmic back catalogue is freely sampled to furnish ironic underscoring for the different episodes from her real life. Perhaps the most tasteless sequence is a split screen, with Mansfield’s actual undertaker Jim Roberts on one side describing the condition of her corpse, while an actor on the other side parrots Roberts’ words in an exaggerated imitation of his Louisiana accent. Yet Mansfield’s life was also very much a grotesquely exaggerated imitation – of Monroe, of Fifties notions of femininity – and accordingly the film includes contributions from other Monroe imitators (Mamie van Doren, the singer ‘Marilyn’, even Marilyn Manson, whose name perhaps best embodies the film’s twin preoccupations). The effect is to create a postmodern hall of mirrors, copying a copy of a copy. Naturally clips from The Wild Wild World Of Jayne Mansfield (1968) and The Jayne Mansfield Story (1980) – improbably featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as love of her life Mickey Hargitay – are also included. In the end, Mansfield herself is both reduced and enlarged by the image that she chose to project and struggled to maintain. Who Mansfield really was remains elusive – but her pretty-in-pink legend is writ large, and in broad strokes, for this hyperbolic, gaudy film portrait.