In the new documentary Mansfield 66/67, John Waters, the famously irreverent film director of cult classics Hairspray, Female Trouble, Polyester and Pink Flamingos, says Divine, the character he created with late actor Harris Glenn Milstead was inspired by a mash-up of the long-dead blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield and the post-World War Two B-movie monster Godzilla.
If that’s not enough camp for you, there are plenty of other reasons for LGBTQs young and old(er) to see this new film, which isn’t so much a biopic as an exploration of how and why the doomed Mansfield and her carefully-cultivated image mattered. 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the actress’ death.
Mansfield was a woman who, like the larger-than-life fake lizard from Japan, also made B-movies in the 1950s and 60s. Her best-known roles include The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957).
Interview subjects include gender-fluid singer Marilyn, legendary drag queen Peaches Christ, gay experimental filmmaker and author of the seminal tell-all Hollywood Babylon Kenneth Anger, actress Mamie Van Doren, and Hitchcock escapee and animal rights doyenne Tippi Hedren.
Filmmaker Todd Hughes, 54, spoke to me by phone from San Francisco, where Mansfield screened last night at the Alamo Drafthouse, a restored old time movie house in the Mission District. “We had all these young people,” Hughes said, 18-25-year-old students from a
Bay Area film school. Often the audiences have skewed older so it was a nice surprise to see millennials becoming aware of Mansfield’s work.
Hughes and his filmmaking partner and husband P. David Ebersole, 53, live and work in Palm Springs. The film’s website lists them as editors, producers and directors.
Why did they make the film? “We think she’s quite extraordinary,” said Hughes, “an interesting cultural figure.”
He goes on to say how some people now see Mansfield as perhaps “the first reality star.” Like the Kardashians, but maybe less crassly confessional, Mansfield was known for taking charge of her career and making the media work for her – instead of the other way around. According to the Wikipedia page about her life: “She was also known for her well-publicized personal life and publicity stunts, such as wardrobe malfunctions.”
Thanks to a new deal with Gunpowder & Sky, a distribution company “for film buffs,” according to Hughes, Mansfield opens in 13 cities across the US and Canada tonight. Boston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland and Toronto are on the docket. Hughes said if the film does well, it could expand to seven more cities in coming weeks.
The film took the duo four years to make. Interviews were conducted in LA, San Francisco, Provincetown, Palm Springs and, of all places, Leeds, in the north of England.
Why Leeds? Connections. Hughes said the head of the film department at Leeds Beckett University encouraged them to apply for a grant. They got it and from January to August, 2016, Hughes and Ebersole were artists in residence. As a result, the school contributed resources the filmmaking team would not otherwise have received. A number of university departments, such as film, music and animation helped make Mansfield what it is today.
The film’s website cites quotes from major media outlets that have reviewed the film. The Los Angeles Times wrote: “A celebration of the sex-positive, taboo-breaking image she created for herself.” And USA Today said, “Beyond all of the shocking stories, eye-grabbing headlines and secondhand rumors,
Mansfield 66/67 is something incredibly important right now – believe it or not.” (Perhaps a reference to how women have been treated in Hollywood and the sexual harassment allegations so many of us are now becoming aware about.)
On November 10, Mansfield 66/67 can be purchased on demand via Amazon, Hulu and iTunes. Shortly thereafter, Hughes said the doc will also be available on DVD.
Finally, Hughes told me the film was just nominated for best documentary by the Women’s Image Network Awards. The filmmaking duo previously won this award for their doc about Cher’s mom, Dear Mom, Love, Cher.