In the early 1960’s, blonds had more fun on the silver screen with the trifecta of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren tripling down on the platinum airhead stereotype. Mansfield always played second fiddle to Marilyn, and by the middle of the decade, even her 40-G bra size became a liability as young women became socially radicalized during the first flows of second-wave feminism. In their new documentary, P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes spotlight Mansfield as a camp pioneer and postmodern icon while also revealing an addiction to fame and extreme publicity-stunting that foreshadowed our own reality television age of celebrities famous for being famous.
Mansfield 66/67 is a contradictory biopic focused on the end of a life and the end of a career. There are a few clips from Mansfield’s big screen debut, The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), and a few mentions of her early life by commentators like director John Waters. But by 1966, Mansfield was trying to find a second wind as an aging bombshell. She was a devoted mother, but raising kids took a toll on her acting career and image as a sex icon. Add to this a string of troubled marriages and, later, drinking and drugs, and Mansfield’s Hollywood trajectory became that of a falling star.
Monroe was an underrated comedian who struggled to be taken seriously as an actress. Mansfield was endowed with an almost absurdly exaggerated figure – an extreme version of the curvy mid-century bombshell ideal immortalized in Alberto Vargas’ World War II-era Esquire paintings: “Varga Girls.”
Mansfield – who spoke five languages and played the violin — knew what she had, and she knew how to use it: Her self-conscious take on the dumb blond stereotype was so totally over-the-top it was obvious she was in on the punchline. She was utterly charming,and today, Mansfield is recognized as a pioneer of camp style whose taste for cornball ironies paralleled those of underground cinema godfathers like Jack Smith and George and Mike Kuchar.
This story of the last two years of the actress’ life is told through old footage and photographs, the memories of friends and colleagues, and the comments of scholars and filmmakers. John Waters’ words are the most memorable, but this film proves that the predictable “talking heads” approach to a documentary subject can be effective as long as those heads are saying compelling, illuminating things. That said, Mansfield 66/67 is severely undermined by the decision to tie together its separated chapters with almost-unwatchable song-and-dance performances by a British theater troupe. These sequences simply make no sense, and the film nearly crashes every time this terrible device is deployed. The film’s mere 84-minute running time makes this obvious attempt to pad the proceedings almost unforgivable.
Thankfully, the documentary stays mostly focused on Mansfield, but by the second half of the film, notorious Satanist Anton LaVey takes on a major supporting role. Mansfield crashed the San Francisco Film Festival in 1966 before getting kicked out for her thoroughly un-hip attention hogging. Mansfield’s Plan B involved looking up LaVey at his newly founded Church of Satan and arranging for a photo session. The bald and brooding LaVey seems an odd match with the All-American Mansfield, but they were both showbiz veterans desperate to generate attention, and photos of LaVey in a black cape and a horned hood holding a golden goblet while Mansfield drank from it on her knees did the trick.
Most of what is known about Mansfield comes from a public record almost entirely made up of publicity. Again, the actress lived her life like a reality television star decades before anyone knew what a Kardashian was, insisting that it would be unfair to her fans if her private life was kept off limits. The fact is Mansfield craved the attention to the point of her own self-destruction, and by the time she was killed in a car wreck in 1967 this documentary makes it feel more like the inevitable result of a life lived at the edge of fantasy and reality. The strongest stuff Ebersole and Hughes offer here is the film’s core questioning about the role of myth and gossip in the making of Hollywood legends. Did a movie studio really separate Mansfield from the love of her life? Were Mansfield and LaVey lovers, and was she really a high priestess in the service of Satan? Maybe it’s just like her first film said: The girl can’t help it.
Mansfield 66/67 screens at the Belcourt Theatre on Monday, Oct. 23 at 7:50 p.m. Go to www.belcourt.org for a full schedule and tickets.