It may be mostly forgotten now but, back in 1977, Britain, and indeed the world, was gripped by the case of the Manacled Mormon, creating a tabloid feeding frenzy and catapulting it’s protagonist, former beauty queen Joyce McKinney to instant stardom.
Tabloid tells a story that had it all; a kidnapped missionary, a beauty queen, forbidden love, illicit sex, some bondage, vice, celebrity, a daring escape or two and, bringing events crashing into the 21st century, some Frankenstein dog-cloning. But how did an all-American girl and ex-Miss Wyoming end up, briefly, the most talked about woman on the planet?
According to the now sixty-something McKinney in Tabloid, Errol Morris’ most playful documentary in decades, she did it all for love. True love. You know, the batsh*t crazy, bonkers obsessional love that gets you locked up.
Separated from the only man she ever truly loved, Kirk Anderson, by a cruel and unforgiving religious cult, Joyce did what any girl in love would. Believing him to be brainwashed and with the aid of friend (and possible submissive slave) Keith May, Joyce followed the young Mormon missionary to Britain where they kidnapped him and held him in a secluded cottage in Devon for three days. What exactly happened next is the subject of some debate but all parties agree it involved Anderson being chained to a bed and lots and lots of sex, consensual according to McKinney, rape according to Anderson. When McKinney and Keith are then arrested, Joyce finds herself in the middle of a tabloid circulation war as her story becomes front page news, hooking a nation who clamour for ever more outrageous details of her misadventures.
Unfolding like a salacious Rashomon, Morris takes us back 30+ years to 1977, filtering McKinney’s tale through the multiple perspectives of those involved (at least those that would talk, since giving evidence at her trial, Anderson has remained silent); the police, the judiciary, the lawyers, McKinney herself and, most importantly, some of the tabloid journalists who milked the story for all it was worth. Through the recollections of the suave, charming Daily Express journo Peter Tory and the almost stereotypically sleazy Daily Mirror hack Kent Gavin, Morris takes us right to the dark, sleazy heart of Fleet Street and it’s creation of today’s disposable celebrity, kiss-and-tell tabloid culture as the Mirror and the Express go toe-to-toe and slug it out over Joyce and her story (Express pro-Joyce, Mirror anti).
After years of serious, heady fare like The Thin Blue Line, Standard Operating Procedure and The Fog Of War it’s good to see perhaps the world’s most important and influential living documentarian exploring lighter, quirkier subject matter reminiscent of his early classics Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. A maker of intense, multi-layered often very personal films, as ever, Morris remains resolutely impartial, telling his story from multiple perspectives, allowing all voices to be heard, painting reality as it is, not how he thinks it oughta be (Michael Moore take note). We never know what Morris thinks, he never colours his narrative with his own views; he simply allows us to hear the story from the mouths of those involved and to make up our own minds. Was Joyce a sweet, innocent girl blinded by love? Was she a dangerous fantasist? A femme fatale? A sexual predator? A feminist icon? Crazy or crazy like a fox? A madonna or a whore? More sinned against than sinner?
It’s hard to tell, truth, like reality, is slippery. There’s maybe a little truth in all the stories of Joyce, in all the ways she’s portrayed. Her’s is a wild ride from beauty queen to aging recluse but you can’t help but feel she was the first, the prototype manufactured celebrity, created, built and broken by our tabloid culture and Morris paints her warmly, fondly.
Despite her cooperation in Tabloid, she is of course now suing Morris and his producers but that is another story. Maybe we haven’t heard the last of Joyce McKinney.
Joyce McKinney, Peter Tory, Kent Gavin, Jackson Shaw, Dr Jin Han Hong