Skulls. Pentagrams. Heart-shaped swimming pools. Chihuahuas. Mansfield 66/67 contains all the components essential for an irresistibly campy cult film-in-waiting. Think of Todd Hughes and P. David Ebersole’s documentary as When the Sex Kitten met the Satanist. It speculates about just what happened when Hollywood’s doomed, bosomy platinum blonde starlet Jayne Mansfield (1933 – 1967) encountered charismatic young devil-horned founder of the First Church of Satan Anton LaVey (1930 – 1997) during the messy final year of her life – in particular, whether he placed a curse on Mansfield, causing her fatal 1967 car crash.
Even if you don’t buy into the central thesis about the satanic curse (Mansfield and LaVey were both voracious publicity seekers and self- promoters, and the film begins with the tongue-in-cheek disclaimer “a true story based on rumour and hearsay”), the wildly enjoyable Mansfield 66/67 plays out like a delirious hot-pink fever dream. The story unfolds via vintage newsreel and film clips, animation, a twangy surf guitar soundtrack, the medium of interpretive dance and commentary from various talking heads. And what a roster of talking heads! The pundits are a kitsch / queer dream cast including John Waters (a life-long Mansfield devotee), drag performer Peaches Christ, underground filmmaker and occultist Kenneth Anger, Tippi Hedren from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, scary Warhol Superstar Mary Woronov, various Playboy playmates and Russ Meyer leading ladies and 1950s b-movie bad girl Mamie Van Doren (who at 87 gives a good indication of what Mansfield might have matured into had she lived to see old age). And for some reason Boy George’s 1980s gender bender pal and pop star manqué Marilyn. (Perhaps there’s a bit too much Marilyn, in fact).
The film works best simply as a celebration of Mansfield herself. Frequently dismissed by the unenlightened as a dime store Marilyn Monroe wannabe, today she looks modern and relevant. Mansfield approached her life and career like a 21st century reality TV star. Her 1950s pin-ups are ubiquitous on Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest. Fifty years after her death, Mansfield can be reappraised as the punk Marilyn, the drag queen’s Marilyn, the anarchist Marilyn and a vivid precursor to what we now call camp. She also has considerable queer diva value: there’s a reason Kenneth Anger put her on the cover of Hollywood Babylon instead of Monroe, and John Waters deliberately fashioned Divine’s persona as a hybrid of “Jayne Mansfield-meets-Godzilla.” In a particularly brilliant piece of editing towards the end, Mansfield cavorting in 1959 is juxtaposed with Madonna as a peepshow performer in the 1986 “Open Your Heart” pop video. Jayne’s gleeful exhibitionism lives on.
Mansfield 66/67 gives Waters the last word: “I never thought of Jayne’s life as tragic, never. Her ending had blood. Guts. Headlines. A dead Chihuahua. It’s what she would have wanted!”