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Thursday 28 March 2013

"Personalities Frozen in Amber" - A Review of the Jayne Mansfield Story

Cover of "The Jayne Mansfield Story"
Cover of The Jayne Mansfield Story
Icons fascinate me. There is little getting away from this fact. I grew up in showbusiness and I have experienced it in most of its forms. However, I think it is probably my very early interest in Greek and Norse mythology coupled with comic books that led me to my interest in the cult of personality. In both instances we have fictional figures that have become representative of what we love and fear, blown up to magical proportions. The way the Romans would also seek to deify their recently deceased emperors presents a very literal way of how humans have always needed immortal heroes. I have little time for current celebrity gossip and I do not elevate those society chooses to celebrate above anyone else. What interests me is the way a certain image is formed and how they go beyond what they ever were as a mortal figure. The icon is its own entity, merely being played by a flesh and blood human being for a relatively short time.

I know very little about Jayne Mansfied's life. The first I heard about her was when I was reading about the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, who claimed her and Sammy Davis Jnr as members. Later her name cropped up here and there; most memorably in the controversial movie, "Crash" (1996). For the record, Mansfield was not decapitated in the tragic road accident that killed her. So, I confess to arriving at the icon through some rather warped paths. I find that what is represents in showbusiness terms is not particularly attractive, but probably more honest than many would like to admit. Below is a review of a film on Mansfield that caught my attention a few years back...


TV biopic based on the life of 1950 and '60s the "blonde bombshell" Jayne Mansfield (Loni Anderson). Beginning with Mansfield telephoning her ex-husband, Miklós "Mickey" Hargitay (Arnold Schwarzenegger), shortly before she is involved in a fatal car crash, the story then tracks back to the beginning of her career. Mickey takes us through the story of a brunette who copied the icon, Marilyn Monroe, dyed her hair blonde and secured movie deals through her talent for courting publicity. Mansfield also had a very troubled life that included alcohol abuse and eventually ostracizing her family and all those who close to her, as she became obsessed in trying to shake the image that made her famous...


Believe it or not, there are some people who argue that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a proficient actor. It is appropriate that the man who symbolized the style over substance extremes of 1980s art began his serious acting career in a biopic on the life of Jayne Mansfield. His only real qualification for landing the role of Mickey Hargitay is the fact that they were both Mr Olympias. The title I chose for this piece was "Personalities Frozen in Amber" in reference to the clever observation made in this film. However, take one look at Schwarzenegger's performance and try to tell me that his onscreen "personality" has thawed in anyway! Perhaps I am being unfair - I'd watch him any day over the equally unimpressive and even more egocentric Steven Seagal - but it is a shame that a film like this, which seems to make a genuine effort to rise about its lowly station as Mansfield tried in her later career, will probably only ever be remembered as a footnote in Schwarzenegger's immensely successful life.

The Jayne Mansfield Story is otherwise adequately acted and struggling with a TV budget, does a good job trying to convey a balanced account of one of tinsel town's casualties. The woman does not get a good retrospective press and it is usually quite rare for a production like this to go against the popular grain. Makers of TV movies are unlikely to get much in the way of critical acclaim and can pretty much draw a line under the profits they make. Mansfield is seen as either the personification of the "dumb blonde" or a cynical manipulator and courtesan to whoever could further her career. It's a misogynistic and rather naïve summary whichever way you look at it. Not struck down at the height of her success like her inspiration and rival, Marilyn Monroe nor allowed to mature into a loveable institution like fellow blonde starlet, Diana Doors, Mansfield died when her career was on the slide. Since then a tawdry and macabre mythology has built up around her. Anton La Vay, the founder of the Church of Satan, claimed to have had sex with her and that she was a member of his Objectivist/pseudo-occult hybrid religion. The nature of her death - that she was decapitated - is gruesomely exaggerated. The Jayne Mansfield Story doesn't lower itself to reference these fables and perhaps this is part of the reason why it hasn't attracted much attention.

Mansfield's public persona is presented as the greatest performance of the real woman's life. The great feminist author Angela Carter once compared the fragile blonde femininity of Monroe and her clones with the Marquis de Sade's heroines - explaining how the male of the species can be easily played and manipulated by this type of faux vulnerable image. This film sees Mansfield play this tactic like a master, wrapping studio executives, the media and paying audiences around her carefully manicured finger. However, once the lights are off she can switch to the driven and ambitious businesswoman who takes her career in both hands, making all the decisions in her life and the lives of those closest to her. The downside of this is a type of selfishness that costs just about every successful artist, especially when family are involved. Although the film is clear that Mansfield was the archetype behind her design it gives credit to her suffering family friends who gave her unyielding support until she actively turned on them. As frustration grew with her inability to secure a role beyond being the sex interest in lowbrow comedies, Mansfield turned to alcohol.

The strength of this particular picture is that it reveals Mansfield's third layer. This is not something pop pundits or celebrity historians really focus on and it's certainly not the image of the star that has endured. It's an area I guess we only hear about through those closest to her and those who took a particular interest in the star's real life. Mansfield's flaw is comparable to that of Tony Hancock's or Jim Morrison's. She is driven by a self-obsessed desire to be better loved and appreciated by her audience. After fame and money she wants respect from her peers. This is the path that Marilyn Monroe somehow achieved and the film is blatant about Mansfield's feelings towards Monroe's career and how it impacted on her life. The woman who first inspired her approach to showbusiness quickly became the source for her pain as her envy for the icon's successful transition into serious work slowly works its poison.

Those who watched from a theatre seat with lit critical pen in hand saw Mansfield's frustration over this matter as an example of a spoilt brat trying to hit above their weight, but we can see that other elements made it especially hard for her succeed. In a man-dominated world, Mansfield used whatever method she saw was available. Unfortunately it was the incredibly limited position as a distilled Monroe clone. Unlike powerful female actresses before her, like Bettie Davis and Joan Crawford, she hadn't started from a position of unique strength, but jumped on a trend and continued with it until it became stale. Like many artists, Mansfield allowed her art to permeate into every region of her life. Unfortunately her skill wasn't in acting. It was performing to create publicity. She was an early prototype for the Jordans and the Paris Hiltons of the future, but unlike these far less talented cultural descendants, "The Jayne Mansfield Story" presents an individual that doesn't realize grasp this fact. Perhaps in reality she was deluded, but the film provides an altogether more sympathetic reason for this conflict. Generating publicity was an instinctive talent of hers. Born into a time where women had few choices, she learned how to exploit her physical charms and to get attention as a means for survival. She mistook the vehicle she was using, public image, with something else, acting, and therein we find that naivety comes in many different forms.

"The Jayne Mansfield Story" is a made-for-TV picture that carries a lot more weight than the medium usually provides. Aside from the cringe-worthy performance by a certain future Governor of California, it is ably acted and flows at an even pace. Loni Anderson is a very convincing Jayne Mansfield, portraying her well as the giddy and giggly sex symbol as well as the totally different mother, wife and businesswoman. The usual restrictions of a TV movie of its time means that despite Mansfield being known for her sexuality little is revealed that would put the film above a PG certificate. This is perhaps another factor that ensured it wouldn't even get a cult following. Nevertheless, it is better for it and I can see a modern re-imagining getting itself lost in these aspects, and ultimately losing the more meaningful aspects of the story. It is well worth a watch for anyone who is interested in the layers beneath Hollywood iconography.

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