Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, with actress Jayne Mansfield, as seen in Mansfield 66/67 (FilmBuff/The Everett Collection)

From the prose of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, the search for ultimate fame and admiration inevitably leads to one’s downfall. Similarly from that point of view, the story of 1950s sex icon Jayne Mansfield deals with as much hubris as any form of literature.

A tale for the front page of any tabloid, Mansfield’s life was one filled with incredible highs and bleak lows. Co-directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes inspect her career by merging performance art, animation, and straightforward documentary filmmaking. Though their film explores Mansfield’s iconography through gender studies and socio-political elements, it is deeply invested in her later affiliations with the Church of Satan in San Francisco, run by founder Anton LaVey. It asks, did witchcraft really lead to the destruction of the movie star?

As an idol of 1950’s female sexuality, Mansfield rivalled Marilyn Monroe as the blonde bombshell in Hollywood. Becoming a star in 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It, she secured her status as a leading actress, though briefly. In this co-production with Leeds Beckett University’s art department in the United Kingdom, the story of her later years is re-created theatrically through dance and music. However, these theatrical reimaginings withdraw the viewer from the conversations of the talking heads, including John Waters, Kenneth Anger, and Tippi Hedren. A natural flow of Mansfield’s story is never truly established because of the episodic nature (the narrative is divided into seven chapters) and the crosscutting with the performances.

Through the lens of post-modernity, the directors feature professors of film studies and a wide range of commentators, including drag performer Peaches Christ and British singer Marilyn, to deconstruct Mansfield’s star persona. It’s evident she was a one in a million, but the lack of deeply personal stories leads Mansfield 66/67 down an orthodox path. Everything plays out as a museum tour, rarely engaging the viewer in emotions or empathy. The exhibit is Mansfield, and she is placed behind a glass wall as others observe and dissect her.

The formerly mentioned Anton LaVey became invested in the actress’s life when her film career tailed off in the ’60s. In an attempt to promote her career, her relationship with LaVey escalated to a photo shoot of the two seemingly practicing black magic. If this sounds similar to Anna Biller’s recent The Love Witch, then the farcical nature of devil worshipping cannot be more apt. As many here state, it was a so-called religion invested in fame rather than demonology. LaVey, like Mansfield, constantly searched for the media spotlight, but their relationship is explored through re-creations that take you outside the parameters of the film.

An alleged death curse placed on Mansfield’s boyfriend and manager, Samuel S. Brody, by LaVey proved coincidentally prophetic when the couple died in a car crash in 1967. Elaborate stories of her decapitation were wide spread at the time due to her affiliation with LaVey and because reporters at the crash site saw her blond wig on the dashboard.

A tale from nearly 50 years ago still has resonance in contemporary society, what with the Kardashians and reality TV creating an atmosphere of hedonistic fame, but what Ebersole and Todd Hughes have crafted is a colorful yet confused portrayal. A clip of the car crash scene reenacted in the made-for-TV movie The Jayne Mansfield Story falls flat. Likewise, the absence of emotion and soul from that staging transpires over to Mansfield 66/67. For a film centered on frame, it’s poetically fitting that one is left with a feeling of emptiness.

Directed by P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes
Released by FilmBuff
USA/UK. 85 min. Not rated
With John Waters, Kenneth Anger, Mary Woronov, Tippi Hedren, and Mamie Van Doren