Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Jayne Mansfield Story

Remember that awful Liz Taylor TV movie with Lindsay Lohan? Yeah, me neither, really, although i know i watched it... but i brought up the Jayne Mansfield TV movie with Loni Anderson as a finer example of a trashy TV biopic. Then, lo, i got the DVD for Christmas. The stars seemingly being in alignment, i give you The Jayne Mansfield Story.

The movie is based on the book, Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties by Martha Saxton. It's one of those rare biographies that treats its subject with affection, yet pulls no punches. Even better, it places Jayne in context to the changing times she lived in, how she manifested them and how they ultimately ruined her.

Casting Loni Anderson at her WKRP in Cincinnati peak as Mansfield was an inspired idea -- while she may not look alike in the face, the rack is close to accurate and she's got the giggle, the wiggle and the jiggle for the role. Even more inspired was the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger -- exactly halfway between Pumping Iron and Conan the Barbarian -- as Mansfield's musclehead hubby, Mickey Hargitay. He delivers a good bit of the narration -- the movie's framing theme is Mickey talking to an unnamed lady journalist about Jayne. He's expectedly wooden and weirdly earnest (present-day scenes with polyester sportcoat straining at the shoulders and light brushing of gray powder at the temples, flashback shots in a series of banana hammocks).

We kick off with the classic "open with the defining moment of the subject's career" gambit -- in this case, the car crash. LoniJayne is wrapping up a gig at a skeezy club in Biloxi, wriggling in a ghastly spangled dress and cheap Barbie wig. (sadly, this is all absolutely true) Then it's into the Buick, try to pass the semi in a cloud of fog and BANG!

Brief misty-eyed Ahnold, then it's back back back back to a brunette Jayne babysitting her toddler daughter while working the popcorn stand at a movie theater -- and, presciently, getting her picture taken with a chimp at a movie premiere (not accurate, but this movie was made during the Reagan years after all...) Jayne explains to adorable tyke that "Oh, I don't think daddy's ever coming back....He doesn't understand those auditions mommy's always going on."

Jayne bulldozes herself into an agent, but blows her first big audition for a bimbo part by insisting on doing a monologue from "Come Back Little Sheba." She quickly realizes that her biggest asset is what's filling out her sweater and decides that "I'll just sell the cheesecake until I'm famous." Of course, this will be Jayne's downfall, as she keeps putting off her ideals of being an actress, a wife, a person until she hits some magic level of famous. It's always just out of her grasp, but once she gets there, she's gonna only do serious roles, get married, spend more time with the kids, write a book....

But, until then, it's about making "Jayne Mansfield" and "big boobs" virtual synonyms, taking any schlocky movie role that comes her way, posing for any photo, opening any supermarket and using "Get me the Playboy Mansion, I want to talk to Hugh Hefner" as her answer to every setback. LoniJayne sports a variety of wild outfits of that special eighties-version-of-the-fifties variety: Everything is pink, sequined, polka-dot, leopard-print or all of the above. The costumes are even more over-the-top than the original Jayne outfits.

"You know, mommy got a lot of money for posing for those pictures. It's gonna help us to get out of here." (Add this to the list of things one hopes that one never says, along with "Here's my PIN number" and "I don't think it's my blood.") Jayne gets Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? by repeatedly dropping her towel. And it was only a hand towel to begin with.
Or, as Ahnold would say, "She was the center of attraction."
The two great chests meet and fall head over heels -- as Schwarzgitay incessantly bellows, "I loff you Jaynie!" Mansfield is at the pinnacle of her fame -- a short-lived pinnacle, not that she even suspected that. They move into the Pink Palace, replete with heart-shaped pool. (Unfortunately, it's not the real thing. Also in the "alas" department, we do not get any scenes about or any reference to Jayne's involvement with Satanism and palling around with Anton LaVey.) Though you wouldn't think it, The Jayne Mansfield Story passes the Bechdel test easily, as Jayne talks about her career with everyone she comes across. Sure, she loves Mickey. But she loves her career and herself more. And her kids. And her chihuahua. And vodka. Jayne develops a very special relationship with vodka.

Jayne gets so caught up in trying to get famous, she forgets what she wanted to be famous for. As the films get worse and worse and the publicity gets tackier and tackier, Jayne drinks more, yells more. I suppose in a way, you could say The Jayne Mansfield Story is all of our stories. As what we meant to be and what we are slide further and further apart, holding it together becomes more and more of a strain -- and almost impossible to do while simultaneously remaining bubbly and cheerful and stacked and compliant.
"But I'm a movie star. That's what I do." The seams do start to show, fraying even further as fifties cartoon bombshell Jayne becomes an anachronism in the Twiggy/Joplin sixties. Jayne stands on her balcony as tour buses cruise by, waving frantically with one hand, clutching her ubiquitous vodka in the other. She breaks up with her agent and spends most of her time loaded, staggering around the Pink Palace, howling, "Dammit, Carol Sue, where's the vodka!?" and yelling at the kids about their damn music. Her sodden, pathetic/sympathetic/narcissistic reaction to Marilyn Monroe's death is eerie, as she dreamily, soddenly intones that she's the last blonde standing without realizing that's no place to be.
And we wind up back where we started, in a cheap joint in Biloxi, as tawdry, tipsy Jayne croons and squeaks over the balding pates of pudding-jawed businessmen.

Loni Anderson is totally credible as Jayne Mansfield and it's easily the best work she ever did. (And i say this as a big fan of her as Jennifer The Receptionist on WKRP in Cincinnati, a rare example of the busty bombshell as the smartest, most competent person in the room.) Schwarzenegger isn't bad as Hargitay -- essentially, he's a well-meaning yet clueless Eastern European guy with barbells and biceps. Not much of a stretch, although this Mickey is smarter and more successful than the real thing.
This poster, however, is creepy. Arnold is unrecognizable, rendered in the Tijuana drugstore mural school of art, and that isn't even Loni -- it's an old Playboy photo of Jayne colored in with a paint-by-numbers set.
So, again, if you want a schlocky-yet-moving TV biopic, The Jayne Mansfield Story should be your go-to. (Did you know that Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Kiss them for Me" is about Jayne Mansfield. Listen to the lyrics... i'm pretty sure Siouxsie wrote them after watching this on late-night TV.) If you need a backup, Mae West starring Ann Jillian is also surprisingly good (hey, it has Roddy McDowall). However, bypass all of the many Marilyn Monroe TV biopics, as well as Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess starring Lynda Carter. (Even as a wee lass, i never really forgave Wonder Woman for what she did to Gilda.) And even i could not summon up enough hatewatch for Jennifer Love Hewitt as Audrey Hepburn. You're on your own with that one.

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