'Mansfield 66/67': Film Review | Rotterdam 2017

Taken from the book California Infernal © Walter Fischer/International Film Festival Rotterdam
Anton LaVey and Jayne Mansfield in 'Mansfield 66/67.'
Engaging but erratic.

P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes' documentary on Hollywood sex-bomb Jayne Mansfield premiered in an out-of-competition sidebar at the Dutch festival.

A bright and bouncy primer on the short, chaotic life of ill-fated sex-bomb Jayne Mansfield, P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes' Mansfield 66/67 seeks to channel the effervescent fizz of its subject with entertaining but haphazard results. Featuring predictably incisive contributions from John Waters, Mary Woronov, Kenneth Anger (who famously stuck Mansfield on the cover of his best-selling gossip-tome Hollywood Babylon) among a slew of talking heads, the U.K./U.S. co-production is a natural for camp-friendly festivals and certainly won't be diminished by small-screen exposure.

It's the first feature to be co-directed by married couple Ebersole and Hughes, who co-wrote 2011's well-received Hit So Hard, profiling Hole drummer Patty Schemel's drug-fueled woes (Ebersole took sole directing credit). Their focus this time is on a rather higher-profile showbiz casualty, Mansfield's cult status remaining very much intact a full half-century after her Louisiana road-accident demise at the age of 34 in 1967. 

"Did Witchcraft Kill Jayne (44-23-37) Mansfield?" speculated one lurid magazine headline at the time, seeking to point the blame at media-friendly diabolist Anton LaVey. Mansfield, at her late-fifties peak 20th Century Fox's answer to Marilyn Monroe, had become friendly with the San Francisco satanist in the months leading up to her shocking, still much-debated demise (the urban myth that she was decapitated is convincingly debunked.)

Skipping over the actress-singer's fascinating pre-fame life almost entirely and providing a cursory survey of her on-camera career — the thrice-married, kittenishly curvaceous provocatrix was always at least as renowned for her offscreen antics — Ebersole and Hughes instead focus intently, even exhaustively, on every possible angle of the unlikely "Faustian" connection between the San Francisco-based devil-worshiper and the pneumatic blonde pin-up.

Both the "beauty" and the "beast" had one thing in common: both were, as one commentator puts it, "complete publicity-whores." The highly intelligent, multilingual, violin-playing Mansfield ("she was in on the joke," as Waters approvingly notes) is hailed here as "the first reality star," a proto-Kardashian who willingly sacrificed all privacy in the name of global attention: "fame at any cost" her motto and mantra. 

A range of articulate but down-to-earth academics (including one jocularly billed as a "cinemashrink") offer illuminating analysis — often from a feminist perspective — that gives this bouncy enterprise dashes of much-needed ballast ... when they can be heard over the tinnily intrusive, consistently too-loud score by Robert Davis and James Peter Moffatt, that is.

But even after 90-odd minutes, Mansfield remains something of an enigma. There's the nagging sense that Ebersole and Hughes are tossing myriad darts at a skittish moving target, trying out numerous techniques (including a couple of fifties-style animations) without ever settling into a proper rhythm. It certainly doesn't help that the duo, who share editing duties with the team of Luke Smith and Joel Maudsley, repeatedly include extended, woeful interpretative-dance episodes featuring a quartet of blonde-wigged singer-hoofers whose enthusiasm exceeds their expertise.

These interludes, which repeatedly and exasperatingly stop Mansfield 66/67 stone dead in its tracks, are like amateurish auditions for some misbegotten off-off-Broadway spectacle, or perhaps a student show in a lesser venue at the Edinburgh Fringe. A truly baffling misjudgment on the part of the directors — did the devil make them do it?

Production company: The Ebersole Hughes Company
Cast: Ann Magnuson (voice)
Directors / Screenwriters: P David Ebersole, Todd Hughes
Producers: Larra Anderson, P David Ebersole, Todd Hughes
Cinematographers: Larra Anderson, John Tanzer
Production designer: Jane Morton
Editor: Todd Hughes, P David Ebersole, Luke Smith, Joel Maudsley
Composers: Robert Davis, James Peter Moffatt
Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Regained)
Sales: Stray Dogs, Paris (nathan@stray-dogs.com)
In English
No rating, 96 minutes

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