A great story is ruined by a lo-fi pop-art treatment in this documentary about the last two years of Jayne Mansfield, the 1950s and 1960s sex symbol and actor.
Imagine a more physically ample Marilyn Monroe and you have a good idea of how Mansfield came across onscreen. But Jayne was more of an unashamed self-publicist than Monroe; she may have invented the career-furthering wardrobe malfunction.
In 1966, probably in yet another attempt to revive a flagging career, she became friendly, perhaps intimate, with Anton LaVey, the notorious LA Satanist. She called the press to their first meeting and of course they came and were snapping at their heels ever after.
Mansfield’s boyfriend at the time got so angry that LaVey hexed him (allegedly). The boyfriend was subsequently involved in a series of car crashes, culminating in the infamous crash which saw both him and Mansfield killed. Tabloids loved the gory details – but was Mansfield really decapitated, or scalped, or did the fatal impact just knock her wig off?
This “exploded pop-art documentary” by the makers of the admirable Room 237 (which explored conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) tells Jayne’s back story in an engaging way before focusing on her final two years. It also makes all the right points, but in the wrong way.
The main problem is the constant participation of interpretive dancers from Leeds, for no apparent reason. They keep on interrupting the story with lengthy dance pieces that attempt (and fail) to give a feeling for the period. The archive footage does that brilliantly already so why did the film makers feel this was necessary?
Especially given the kitschy pop art approach, it would be too easy to present Jayne Mansfield in a misogynistic way as a bit of a joke. The main positive point the film makes is that she was an early example of the ‘sex-positive’ woman. She may have been a caricature of sorts but that caricature represented changes to women’s sexual roles from the 1950s into the 60s. Would more of this cultural studies theorizing have been better or not? It would have been an improvement on the dancing.
More about Jayne as a person, as a woman and as a mother of five children might have taken the film in an intriguing direction. Then again, what can you say, especially if you’re not involving family members in your documentary?
Mansfield 66/67 comes to UK cinemas from 11 May 2018.