Wednesday, June 21, 2017

FL41: Mansfield 66/67

Anton LaVey, the flamboyant founder of the Church of Satan shrewdly targeted celebrity converts for their publicity value, not unlike another cult we could mention, but the Satanists were considerably less sinister in their dealings. His greatest recruitment triumph may or may not have been Hollywood sex symbol Jayne Mansfield. Accounts vary—drastically. P. David Ebersole & Todd Hughes explore the unlikely relationship between the two very different icons in Mansfield 66/67 (trailer here), which screens during Frameline 41 in San Francisco.

We’ve largely forgotten now, but in 1957 Mansfield was one of the top box office draws in the nation. In 1963, she became the first big name movie star to do a nude scene in Promises…Promises! It is not hard to understand why fate chose her for such a distinction. Unfortunately, she was scuffling by 1966, thanks in part to some poor business decisions made by her lover-manager Sam Brody. In fact, Brody’s influence over Mansfield was so toxic, LaVey reportedly put a curse on the questionable attorney after befriending Mansfield.

Just how close they were and how deeply involved Mansfield was in the Church of Satan remains hotly debated. Regardless, they were clearly quite willing to pose for PR photos together. Indeed, several talking head commentators suggest the only true religion either held was a faith in publicity. Still, this a wild story, particularly with respects to the curse and other rituals LaVey supposedly conducted on her behalf.

Let’s be honest, it is impossible to make a boring film about Mansfield and LaVey. It really calls out for a lurid, candy-colored narrative treatment from a visual stylist like Love Witch helmer Anna Biller. Ill-advisedly, Ebersole & Hughes try to exploit the Mansfield camp factor with frequent song-and-dance numbers to represent various episodes under discussion. For these musical interludes to work, they must be slyly droll and impressively choreographed—but they just don’t land.

It is too bad they waste so much time on the production numbers, because there is some fascinating stuff in 66/67. It isn’t exactly Lincoln and Kennedy, but the assembled experts draw some intriguing parallels between the two very public figures (she lived in the “Pink Palace,” he lived in the “Black House”). The animated segments are also suitably irreverent. However, all bets are off when they establish an apostolic feline link to Teppi Hedren and the utterly insane lions-around-the-house movie Roar. Not surprisingly, none of the Hargitay family chose to participate, but cult film icons Mary Woronov and John Waters are present and accounted for, as well as her great rival, Mamie Van Doren.

A little less dancing and a few more lions and this film really would’ve been a contender. Still, there is plenty of true-enough dish to make anyone’s head spin. Recommended for adventurous TCM viewers who can patiently sit through the interpretive dance, Mansfield 66/67 screens this Saturday (6/24), as part of Frameline 41.