Overview: A lurid, candy-coated look into the tumultuous life, death, and legacy of Hollywood starlet, sex symbol, and rumored Satanist Jayne Mansfield. Gunpowder & Sky; 2017; Not Yet Rated; 84 minutes.
A Photo is Worth a Thousand Side-eyes: It’s one of the most famous photos in Hollywood history. At a 1957 Paramount dinner party honoring Italian film star Sophia Loren, Hollywood bombshell Jayne Mansfield sits down next to the guest of honor, gazes over at the camera, and flashes her million-watt smile, all the while oblivious to two things. First, that her right nipple had fallen out of her low-cut dress. Second, that Loren was giving her cleavage a side-eye that could shatter the walls of Jericho itself. In a later interview she recounted:
“Listen. Look at the picture. Where are my eyes? I’m staring at her nipples because I am afraid they are about to come onto my plate. In my face you can see the fear. I’m so frightened that everything in her dress is going to blow—BOOM!—and spill all over the table.”
This would hardly be the only time the notoriously busty Mansfield’s cleavage would make international news. Throughout her entire career, Mansfield wowed sex-starved audiences with her exaggerated physique. Alongside Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren, she helped establish the post-war “blonde bombshell” stereotype with an almost cartoonishly curvaceous body and bleached platinum blonde hair. First reaching stardom playing oblivious sex-pots in irreverent comedy classics like Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Mansfield seemed destined to become Hollywood’s premiere sex symbol in the wake of Marilyn Monroe’s late career decline. But as the 50s moved into the 60s, Mansfield’s star began to wane. But the publicity-starved Mansfield refused to go down without a fight, eager to use her ”assets” to prolong her career. First, she shocked the world by doing a nude photoshoot for the June 1963 issue of Playboy. Then, two months later she made history in King Donovan’s Promises! Promises! (1963) as the first mainstream American actress to appear onscreen nude. And finally, in 1966 she conducted a highly publicized meeting withv Anton LaVey who named her “High Priestess of San Francisco’s Church of Satan.” Rumors flew, first that they were lovers, then that LaVey had put a curse on her disbelieving husband.
But even this taboo-breaking naughtiness couldn’t reignite the public’s interest. She was soon resigned to Las Vegas stripteases before dying in a horrific car accident that itself became an urban legend. Did LaVey’s curse intended for her husband miss and hit her as well?
Fiction is Stranger than Truth: Jayne Mansfield was one of the most unusual movie stars in Hollywood history, due in no small part to her being one of the few performers whose notoriety and infamy increased after their death. It is this fascination that fuels P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ Mansfield 66/67, one of the rare documentaries about a historical figure more interested in myth than reality. Complete with a who’s who of talking heads, the film celebrates the wacky, tacky, tragic, and mysterious life of one of America’s greatest sex symbols. As the sensationalist title suggests, the film is centered on her long-speculated relationship with LeVay and the Church of Satan. But the parts that truly fascinate are the ones celebrating Mansfield as a proto-camp icon. From the start of her Hollywood career, Mansfield embraced and celebrated her image as bumbling dumb blonde, despite the fact that she spoke several languages, played violin, and reportedly had an IQ in the 160s. Her love of the most absurd parts of her persona inspired many pioneers of camp and trash cinema like John Waters who claims in the film that she was a primary inspiration for Harris Glenn Milstead’s drag queen character Divine: “I always said Divine was Jayne Mansfield and Godzilla put together to scare hippies.” The film celebrates her camp influence with several over-the-top interludes with actors re-enacting scenes from Mansfield’s life, singing blasphemous versions of Christian hymns, and raucously go-go dancing. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that Mansfield’s camp appeal was the main interest for the film, not her association with Satanism.
Overall: Mansfield 66/67 is an odd little documentary with pink paint and glitter running through its veins. In trying to tell the legends associated with Mansfield, it counter-intuitively gives a fuller picture of her life than a rote, informative documentary ever could. Here is a film that embodies the actress it’s honoring. To quote Bowie: “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am!”