Biopic Theater returns to its roots this week with the 1980 made-for-television exploration into the life of Jayne Mansfield. We also see a return to the leading lady we started this series with: Loni Anderson. As I mentioned in my original review of White Hot: The Thelma Todd Story, Anderson isn’t a terrible actress; she’s the same in The Jayne Mansfield Story. Anderson is bubbly, curvaceous, and perfect for the soap-opera shrieking that is in the third act. The only criticism I found fault with is utilizing the film as a début for a young actor named Arnold Schwarzenegger…maybe, you’ve heard of him? Told through his eyes, the movie makes his character out to be the voice of reason within the movie; ultimately portraying Mansfield as a drunken egomaniac. Thankfully, Anderson’s personality makes the movie watchable, and it’s an entertaining foray into the made-for-television genre. Jayne Mansfield (Anderson) dreams of being a beloved star, on par with Marilyn Monroe. With a successful marriage to bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay (Schwarzenegger) under her wing, Mansfield is poised for greatness. The only problem is that the studios find her to be a poor imitation of Monroe, keeping Mansfield forever in her shadow.
Mansfield is in the caliber of stars more famous for her death than her work in films, sadly; at least that’s true for me. The movie follows this adage by starting things off with her death, and Mansfield ominously foreshadowing things with a melancholic “see you tomorrow, Mickey.” If you didn’t have any information on Mansfield’s death before, the audience is well-aware of it with that sentence. It also implies a major inaccuracy, to my knowledge, which creates the crux and narrative device of the movie: that Mansfield and Hargitay were going to get back together, but fate played a cruel trick on them. From what I researched, the duo were not planning on a reconciliation. In fact, Mansfield’s attorney/boyfriend was a victim in the same car crash, but the movie completely ignores this fact (despite Mansfield’s final relationship supposedly being abusive and worthy of a look in the film).
The Jayne Mansfield Story becomes the “Jayne and Mickey Hargitay Story,” or at least Jayne’s story through Hargitay’s eyes, making it sentimental and nostalgic. Hargitay narrates the tale, telling the story to a reporter who is interested in hearing it. I love stories told from differing perspectives; I recall White Hot having various narrators give clashing information throughout, but I have to wonder if Hargitay was heavily involved in production because the script makes him out to be a saint; I’m not saying that Hargitay isn’t a nice person, but there is a reason the duo got divorced and the movie wants it known that he wasn’t the problem. Schwarzenegger’s narration will be an issue if you absolutely hate his voice. I’m so-so on his acting career, he’s made several of my favorite films, but as a Californian who lived there during his governorship, I can’t say I like him as a person. With all that being said…he’s not bad here. Yes, tolerating his narration is difficult but he’s not as ingrained in the “Arnold Schwarzenegger” persona he’d slip into as the years got on. He’s got a delicate chemistry with Anderson, and has some tender moments with the little girl playing Jayne Marie Mansfield (Laura Jacoby). Part of this could be that Loni Anderson has a tendency to make her leading men better (she did in White Hot), but regardless, Schwarzenegger is decent. The movie does shift heavily into detailing how Hargitay became “Mr. Jayne Mansfield,” and he does take on the voice of reason role as the movie progresses, but the story moves at a brisk clip so you don’t get bored.
Loni Anderson continues to shine as the Queen of made-for-TV movies. As she was in White Hot, Anderson is bright-eyed, earnest, and tenacious in the pursuit of her dream. The first half portrays Mansfield as a single mother who has a desire to be an actress, but understands she has a child to support. The mother/daughter relationship with Jayne Marie is developed in the first half before being dropped entirely in the last; it is a sweet portrayal, though, from what we get, with Jayne Marie being her mother’s “biggest fan.” The underlying thread is that Mansfield wants to be taken seriously as an actress which I’m sure Anderson did as well. Anderson is just as believable as the brunette mother as she is as the blonde tease that Mansfield becomes. You can see Anderson reveling in being the flirt; simpering, giggling, but through it all she knows it’s belittling to her. The weird cooing noise Anderson does turns into nails on a chalkboard towards the end, but it’s manageable since Mansfield was meant to play up the “dumb blonde” in her roles. Of course, the movie has to portray Mansfield as a broken, uncaring woman by story’s end, or else…her death would be too tragic? The story presents a dichotomy with Jayne as the single mother from the beginning, and the terrible shell of a person she becomes by the end. We’re meant to see that Mansfield uses sex and her body for publicity; in fact, everything becomes a publicity stunt. (She fakes being unable to swim only to lose her top in the swimming pool. Later on, she shows up in a towel which “accidentally” falls on stage.) As an actress, Jayne Mansfield came to epitomize the worst traits in women, and the movie shows us that, but only through characters wagging their fingers at her and telling her it’s wrong. The studios supposedly only use Mansfield to make Marilyn Monroe more amenable to their demands, and every time they bring up Monroe (complete with real footage of her), you wonder why this movie doesn’t focus more on their rivalry. Eventually, Mansfield becomes an egotistical, drunk, attacking her daughter and talking about “Jayne Mansfield” in the third person. It’s expected, but her character’s motivations, or lack of them, are never fully explored.
In terms of the making-of the movie, you can’t be too disappointed with the liberties that are taken. I appreciate the use of real photos to track Jayne’s progression during her childhood. The movie starts with Jayne right as she discovers fame, and while I liked not wasting time with her growing up, you could have at least mentioned that Jayne Mansfield wasn’t her real name. (Her real name was Vera Jayne Palmer.) There’s a lot of solid, real footage of the stars of the period utilized which is great because we know this is a biopic, you don’t need to lie to make us believe the actors are the real people, but all the “romantic” photos of Jayne and Mickey are stills from scenes we literally saw a minute ago. Time period is also never firmly established; it either moves very quickly or very slowly, and yet Jayne Marie stays the same age for over an hour before walking by as a sixteen-year-old. Oh, and if you want to see a recreation of Jayne Mansfield’s “Pink Palace,” you’re in for a shock…the majority of the house is white!
Overall, The Jayne Mansfield Story was the first movie I thought of when putting this series together, and it’s the perfect definition of everything 1980s television movies were: salacious, not necessary accurate, and with surprisingly strong (albeit very campy) performances. Anderson continues to show how to do TV movies right, and I enjoyed her playing Mansfield far more than I did when she played Thelma Todd.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.