“The Jayne Mansfield Story” (1980)

Thanks to social media, it’s now easier than ever to become “famous,” often for doing as little as Tweeting a joke (or someone else’s joke, if you’re Josh Ostrowsky). Sometimes you don’t even need to try–merely saying something funny in a “man on the street” interview will turn you into someone’s “spirit animal.” Back in Hollywood’s golden age, however, you had to work hard to get publicity, let alone keep it, and no one worked harder than Jayne Mansfield.

Now remembered mostly for being Mariska Hargitay’s mother, and the closest thing Marilyn Monroe had to real competition (but not for being decapitated in a grisly car crash, as urban legend has it), Jayne Mansfield turned publicity stunts into an art form, at a level not seen since P.T. Barnum. While Monroe crafted an image of herself as a fragile little girl in the body of a sex goddess, Mansfield came on like a human Tex Avery cartoon, all big boobs and bigger hair, somehow both cute and a little sleazy at the same time. Though she claimed to be a member of Mensa who could speak five languages, Mansfield’s real genius lay in arranging well timed nip slips and burst dress seams, often upstaging more famous counterparts like Jane Russell and Sophia Loren, to the delight of tabloids.

Much like her modern counterpart Anna Nicole Smith, the press treated Mansfield with both slobbering delight and snide derision, running photos of her semi-nude while also criticizing her “confus[ing] publicity and notoriety with stardom and celebrity” in a way that was “very distasteful to the public.” Also like Smith, Mansfield was either unwilling or unable to move past the image that made her famous, and ended up an unpleasant pop culture joke, dying suddenly before she reached forty. Other than a documentary released last year about her rumored involvement with Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, and an episode of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, Mansfield has gradually faded from the collective memory, a relic of Hollywood’s misogynistic past (not that it’s not still misogynistic, of course, just in a less overt, tits in your face sort of way).

She did warrant a made for TV movie, though, 1980’s The Jayne Mansfield Story, which hits all those campy celebrity biopic notes with the laser precision of a brain surgeon, right down to the drunken tantrums and plaintive cries of “Why does everyone leave me?!” Loni Anderson plays Mansfield, and, like a lot of biopics, particularly those made for television, she doesn’t look a lot like her, and isn’t terribly convincing as a fresh faced 21 year-old working as a popcorn girl in a Dallas movie theater, but she tries her best. The movie opens with Mansfield wrapping up a “nightclub tour” at a dive bar outside Biloxi, and calling one of her ex-husbands to tell him that an astrologer has determined that their “stars are converging again,” so they should reunite both romantically and as a show biz duo. Alas, that reunion never takes place, as Mansfield is killed in a car accident later that evening.

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The ex-husband she wishes to reunite with is bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay (Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most perfectly cast actor in the movie), the love of Mansfield’s life, who serves as the narrator. “Having her picture taken with a gorilla as a publicity stunt for a movie was typical for Jayne,” Mickey says, with affection, and, indeed, all we ever really know for sure about Jayne is that she will do just about anything to be a movie star, including nude modeling, which, in real life, nearly cost her custody of her oldest child.

After her very first Hollywood audition is a flop, Jayne immediately adopts the persona that makes her famous–a cooing, squealing, eyelash batting caricature who has in breast size what she lacks in brains, and while it instantly brings men to their knees, it doesn’t really bring her the high profile acting roles she craves. Nevertheless, Jayne knows that any publicity is still good publicity, so she pulls bizarre stunts like “accidentally” falling into a pool (which “accidentally” causes her bikini top to come off), and showing up for auditions wearing only a towel (which she “accidentally” drops).

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Jayne’s star rises, but only by playing roles that are barely disguised variations of her real life persona. In the meantime, she meets and falls in love with Hargitay, who at first takes willing part in her increasingly exhausting bids for tabloid publicity, such as lugging her into events on his shoulder like an IKEA bookcase. However, he soon discovers that life with Jayne means acting as a silent background player in her endless pursuit of celebrity, and putting up with her near-pathological devotion to both the press and her fans.

She eventually lands a contract with Fox, who wants her to tone down the wardrobe malfunctions and Playboy photo shoots. That’s the only Jayne anyone seems interested in, though, so, driven by both her envy of Marilyn Monroe, and the lack of “serious” acting roles, she ratchets it up further, traveling with a dyed pink poodle and treating her wedding to Hargitay as a circus-like spectacle. The dramatic roles still don’t come, though, and by the 1960s, Jayne’s brand of kitschy cheesecake has become passe. Faced with the knowledge that her carefully cultivated image is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and unable to remake herself in any other way, Jayne descends into alcoholism, alienating Hargitay and everyone else around her.

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Career and personal life in shambles, the movie ends where it begins, with Jayne reduced to doing a nightclub act, which involves the same old baby voiced, shoving her cleavage in dirty old men’s faces bit that made her famous, but now seems a little sad and grotesque. She calls Hargitay to tell him that she still loves him, then leaves for that ill-fated car ride.

In a voiceover at the end, Hargitay states that the Jayne remembered by fans was different than “my Jayne, the real Jayne,” but we never actually get to see that Jayne, and this is the primary issue with The Jayne Mansfield Story. Even around her husband and children, Jayne is always in character, and that character is, of course, “Jayne Mansfield.” Even in meant to be tender moments, such as spending time with her young daughter, she’s unable to talk about anything but her career, and everything she does is calculated according to what will look best in print, right down to demanding that Hargitay drive her to the hospital to give birth in her signature pink Cadillac, because “that’s what the press will expect.” If the real life Jayne was anything like the movie Jayne, she must have been insufferable to be around.

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It’s a strange movie, in that the viewer is left not knowing how to feel about Jayne. Her publicity stunts alternately come off as both clever and desperate, as well as both of her own volition and because of a male-driven industry that doesn’t know what to do with her as an actor. We only have Jayne’s word that she’s capable of serious acting, which makes it further difficult to determine how to interpret her behavior. If she had simply retired when the lovable bimbo roles dried up, living off both the money she already made, and Hargitay’s own success, she probably would have been fine. Instead, her blind ambition turns her into the kind of egomaniacal monster who talks about “Jayne Mansfield” in the third person, and whose house is decorated in nothing but glamour shots of herself.

Arnold Schwarzenegger struggles with some eye rolling, not likely based on actual conversations dialogue like “I think we should cool off some of that sizzle,” but, in his first dramatic role, he’s earnest and likable, and probably the best thing about the movie. The Jayne Mansfield Story wants to be a serious biopic that also features a lingering shot of Jayne’s heart shaped pool, which, with two carefully placed boulders, more resembles a giant pair of breasts. It’s the kind of movie where Jayne’s decline can be measured according to the quality of her wigs–she starts out with a majestic blonde helmet, which gradually becomes a televangelist’s wife bubble, then a Baby Jane Hudson-esque coif, ending with something a Halloween Adventure store would sell as part of a Dolly Parton costume.

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Beyond making the curious decision of portraying Jayne as less successful than she actually was (in real life, she managed to score at least one critically acclaimed dramatic role, even beating out Natalie Wood for a “Best New Star” Golden Globe), much of the movie focuses on Jayne’s publicity stunts, finding as many opportunities to put Loni Anderson in tight and/or skimpy clothing as possible, and leaving all the real drama for the last half hour. This clumsy plot structuring ages Jayne’s oldest daughter from five to sixteen within one scene, and makes it look as though Jayne and Hargitay are married for barely a day before a drunk Jayne furiously batters him and screams that she hates him, when he criticizes her for greeting fans while only wearing a negligee.

An interesting point could have been made about the infuriating tragedy of a woman being considered “washed up” at 34 (again, not something that has really changed much even fifty years after Mansfield’s death), but The Jayne Mansfield Story feels weirdly detached, treating its subject matter rather a bit unkindly, and making sure the viewer never forgot what it was that made her famous in the first place.

Original airdate: October 29, 1980

Watch it here

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