The most enduring image of Jayne Mansfield might be the 1975 cover of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Though she starred in many films and was maybe the second reigning blonde bombshell behind Marilyn Monroe in the ‘50s and ‘60s, by the time Anger’s book was published Mansfield was most famous for being a tragic Hollywood footnote, her horrific, fatal car accident morphing into the stuff of urban legend in record time. But even THAT cultural milestone is becoming lost to the ages, and that fact’s not lost on the makers of Mansfield 66/67, a documentary ostensibly about the B-movie starlet’s weird, brief friendship with Anton Lavey, self-proclaimed head of the Church of Satan.
It’s a great little story, but the doc recognizes that it’s a story that doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t know who the hell its central figure is. So a good chunk of Mansfield 66/67 is a primer on just who Jayne Mansfield was and why you’re watching a documentary about her. That’s a mission the film handles rather well through archival footage, talking heads (LOTS of academics, but John Waters, Mamie van Doren and Peaches Christ are welcome oases), animation, and a bunch of colorful interpretive dance numbers because sure, why not. Mansfield was a stage actress and singer whose sex appeal was a sort of “hold my beer” response to Marilyn Monroe’s je ne sais quoi. Mansfield didn’t get the same level gigs as Marilyn, but not for lack of trying. Saying yes more often than no pans out in all sorts of interesting ways, and we witness Mansfield’s rise to sort-of stardom in films like The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, her journey through a string of failed marriages, and a career that was prone to too much dreck and too little discretion. Sure, she could speak five languages and play several musical instruments, but when you’re sold to audiences as a kind of dirtier, less coy version of the image Marilyn was selling, that’s all they show up for. This was fine with Mansfield; she didn’t view her sexuality as something for which to be punished (she was the first actress to go nude in a mainstream Hollywood film). But as the film details, that didn't mean the industry and the world wasn't going to punish her anyway.
So the film presents the Jayne Mansfield of 1966 as a washed up, discarded has-been past her sexual prime. (She was 33.) Weaving historical fact with hearsay and rumor, Mansfield’s unlikely friendship (or more?) with Anton LaVey is speculated on, with no one asserting particularly definitively whether the actress was legitimately interested in joining LaVey’s church, or simply trying to get in the newspapers one more time. What IS given a distressing amount of credence is the curse LaVey allegedly put on Mansfield’s boyfriend Sam Brody, and whether or not this was the cause of her (and his) death in a violent car accident in 1967. Watching a po-faced AJ Benza speculate on the existence of the supernatural vs the power of suggestion is a thing you will see in this film.
But that’s the kind of film Mansfield 66/67 is. Though serious contemplation is given toward what Mansfield and her uninhibited sexuality represents to 20th century culture - popular culture, sexual culture, feminist culture - the film is never above being a little weird and silly. It’s a tone befitting its subject, a subject who might well fade from our general awareness if not for loving, quirky tributes such as this.