“You can write anything once someone is dead; you can write a whole book of lies, and there’s nothing we can do,” ruminates shock provocateur John Waters over the credits of the off-beat analysis of seminal Hollywood starlet Jayne Mansfield’s final days.
Far from being an exposé or investigation into the tragically cut-short life of the infamous “blond bombshell,” Mansfield 66/67 relishes in the questions and gossip surrounding what really happened and enjoys the morally dubious fun of speculation now that the figure will forever be an incomplete picture. Knowing that answers are out of their reach, Ebersole and Hughes delight in the gossip angle, allowing the assembled interviewees to tell the story merely as they have heard it, whispered ear to ear, for better or for worse.
The one thing one must grapple with when watching Mansfield 66/67 is whether or not it could qualify as being in bad taste or not, and to that effect, there is no simple answer. Spotlighting a deliberately campy approach to its subject and life, Ebersole, Hughes and their assembled tribunal (consisting of all walks of entertainment from media critics, feminist authors, drag queens, Kenneth Anger, biographers and the aforementioned king of bad taste) pick callously at the life of Mansfield.
From her days of being Monroe’s rival to the unfortunate drop-off into publicity stunts for attention and public battles with addiction and former husbands, 66/67 never drops its campy aesthetic and makes a spectacle out of all her triumphs and tragedies in Hollywood and in her home. Tellingly with its often-grotesque dramatizations of events in her life with cartoons, toy dioramas (including the car accident that took her life) and scenes of interpretative dance, Ebersole and Hughes’s design is to remember Mansfield in death as the spectacle by which the Hollywood culture made her life.
And it is indeed compelling to a sinister degree once we’ve reminded ourselves that yes, Jayne Mansfield was still a human being underneath the image the film and its panel cling to as the only understanding of her we have. Its understandable then why the film heavily draws on her connection to Anton LeVey, head of the Church of Satan and an influential figure in Mansfield’s last years on Earth. He’s equally an image of his own making who thrived on stories surrounding him rather than realities,
The film goes in-depth into their relationship (whatever it was) as a way of building a more complete picture of Mansfield in her most trying years of Hollywood obscurity and personal crises. Again, the panel of talking heads is iffy on the exact details, but it knows the circulated legends by heart and deeply enjoys every second of reciting them once more.
Much like another oft-misunderstood documentary, Room 237, which is about the supposed hidden meanings of The Shining, Mansfield 66/67 is not to be taken as exact fact. While the research and pulled clips from films, television, publications and gossip rags is staggeringly extensive, not even they can dispel the conceit of the film: hearsay and gossip is its own entertainment.
While at times wilfully exaggerated about Mansfield’s life, 66/67 delights in its own sleaze, not in a way that is too infectiously appealing to ignore or scoff at it. It’s not as much a denial of falsehoods as it is an embracing of fiction into the conversation, and because of that, Mansfield 66/67 charms more than it horrifies.
If viewers are looking for the Jayne Mansfield story presented in hard, trusting, indisputable facts, they ought to look elsewhere for that film. If one is looking for stories of Jayne Mansfield in all their salacious, dubious and exaggerated delivery, 66/67 justifies itself by only promising you the fun bits of what is in reality a tragic tale of Hollywood’s chew-em-up and spit-em-out mentality. Ethical or not, the film wants to be a part of the conversation, and in its own quirky way, the case it makes is solid.