A lurid tale or a love story?
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 15, 2011
There is no better recommendation for “Tabloid,” the new film by Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”), than the published reports that its subject, Joyce McKinney, has been showing up at festival screenings to loudly denounce the movie and its director. It doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the merits of the movie, but it does speak volumes about McKinney, a woman whose spellbinding and baffling presence — nay, performance — in “Tabloid” more than lives up to her recent off-screen antics.
She single-handedly turns “Tabloid” into a piece of work as mesmerizing and bewildering as its subject. For fans of Morris’s work, which often grapples with the nature of truth and memory, it’s a must-see film.
Though McKinney is less than a household name in the United States, in 1977 the former beauty queen from small-town North Carolina made headlines in England when reports surfaced that she had abducted a 19-year-old Mormon missionary in London named Kirk Anderson, allegedly holing up with him in a remote cottage for several days of nearly nonstop sex. Handcuffs may or may not have been involved. And Anderson — with whom McKinney apparently shared a romantic history of some kind back in Utah — may or may not have been a willing participant.
Once the British tabloids got hold of the story, it turned into a lurid tale of the “manacled Mormon,” as headlines at the time referred to Anderson. To hear McKinney tell it, however, it was a love story about a desperate girlfriend trying to rescue her beau from a controlling religious cult in the only way she knew how.
Anderson declined to be interviewed for the film. Her accomplice, a friend named Keith May, died in 2004.
McKinney, bless her heart, shows no such reticence. An extensive and entertaining interview with her forms the backbone of the film. So it’s a little hard to understand exactly why she’s so disappointed with the finished product, except perhaps because Morris gives equal time to other, less charitable storytellers.
They include the airplane pilot, Jackson Shaw, whom McKinney initially hired to help her spirit Anderson away (though he ultimately backed out of the plot when things got too loopy), along with a couple of competing tabloid journalists who covered the scandal at the time.
It is the newspapermen’s recollections — one calls her “barking mad”; another tells how his paper dug up evidence of McKinney’s past as a nude model and possible prostitute — that make matters more complicated, and fascinating.
Was it love or obsession? Did the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really brainwash Anderson, as McKinney claims? Where would an innocent country girl get the wad of hundred-dollar bills that Shaw says she paid him with? Were the nude photos that ran in the tabloids doctored or real? How is it that the vault containing evidence of McKinney’s tawdry past has now mysteriously disappeared? And if McKinney has a genius IQ — 168, as she says — then why does she do so many foolish — one might even say crazy — things? The film includes an update about McKinney’s successful 2008 effort to clone her late pit bull, Booger, at a cost of at least $25,000.
McKinney is, deservedly, Morris’s star. But his true subject is the slippery nature of “facts,” and the way our fixation with scandal and gossip distorts the very lens with which we pry into the private lives of others. If McKinney is angry about “Tabloid,” it’s probably because it so scrupulously avoids taking sides. Morris gives McKinney a soapbox, but it’s often her own words that trip her up. At several points, she speaks of how dashing and handsome Anderson was. But in pictures — and in the recollections of others — he comes across as a pudgy, unathletic nobody.
“You know,” says McKinney, “you can tell a lie long enough till you believe it.” She’s speaking about Anderson, who has since married someone else and returned to a quiet life in Utah. But she may as well be talking about herself, or any of us.
Contains nudity and frank discussion of sex.