Blonde bombshell. Playboy Playmate. High priestess of the Church of Satan. Whatever you know—or think you know—about Jayne Mansfield, chances are it has more to do with her storied life off-screen than her handful of memorable movie performances. Mansfield was one of the first celebrities to be famous simply for being famous. Her untimely and, by some accounts, exceedingly gruesome death in a car crash at 34 only added a macabre allure to the already sordid story of her Tinseltown rise and fall.
That story is the subject of a pulpy and playful new documentary from filmmakers P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, Mansfield 66/67, out in select cities October 27.
Mansfield is what Ebersole calls a “Hollywood Boulevard” star, in that she died before her time and everyone knows her name, though few people have seen even her biggest hits, like The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) or Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Many will already know her as a sex symbol; positioned as a followup to Marilyn Monroe, Mansfield was far more overt and explicit in her sexuality, becoming the first major Hollywood star to do a nude scene in a studio picture.
Far more surprising are rumors of her dalliances with the dark arts and her affair with Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan (below), who allegedly cursed her lawyer (and lover) Sam Brody to die in a car crash. Mansfield, Brody, and their driver were all killed when they collided with a tractor-trailer on Highway 90 outside New Orleans in 1967. Three of her children were in the backseat and survived. Headlines said she was decapitated, though her undertaker disputes those reports.
Ebersole and Hughes, husbands and producing partners whose previous projects include Dear Mom, Love Cher, a doc about the “Believe” singer’s mother, are not your typical Hollywood historians. To rehash the madcap events of Mansfield’s life and death—both the facts and the legend—the film employs trippy interpretive dance and ’60-style animated reenactments (collaborations with London’s Leeds Beckett University) alongside conventional archival footage and gossip rag clippings.
“Legend lives on. People tell stories over and over again to the point where they feel as though they’re true,” Ebersole says of juggling fact and fiction in the film, which revels in outlandish rumors, often debunking them with a wink and a nudge. “We respond to what we hear about movie stars in the press, and we piece together the legend and the story for ourselves. In a lot of ways, the movie is as much about that as it is [about] the specific story of Jayne and Anton.”
To sort through the whispered tales that outlived Mansfield, such as LaVey also causing her son to be mauled by a lion, the doc assembles an impressive array of commentators. They include queer luminaries John Waters and Peaches Christ, along with film historians, cultural critics, and Mansfield contemporaries Mamie Van Doren and Tippi Hedren.
As for her place in the Hollywood pantheon, Ebersole and Hughes are hoping their film will help viewers rediscover and fall in love with Mansfield—and perhaps even reconsider her pioneering role in post-’50s women’s liberation. “At the time, she certainly rubbed feminists the wrong way,” Ebersole says, referring to her pinup-girl aesthetic and self-silly persona. “But when you look back and think about the fact that she was sex-positive, owning her own relationships and career [choices]—she was a working woman, doing it on her own terms.”
These qualities and more have made Mansfield an icon in the queer community. “She defined camp, which hadn’t fully formed yet, and became very much associated with the queer community in the ’60s,” Hughes says. “Everyone always uses ‘camp’ as though it’s a bad word,” Ebersole continues. “But to us, it’s the way that you hold a funhouse mirror up to society and make people think and look at the culture,” which Mansfield undoubtedly did during her time, and the movie hopes to recreate. “She’s a natural queer icon,” Ebersole says. “She’s live and let live, be yourself and do it your way—that’s pretty darn queer.”