In 1977, a blonde, zaftig, former teen beauty pageant winner named Joyce McKinney fell deliriously in love with a no-nonsense Mormon, Kirk Anderson. Against his devout family’s wishes, the couple got engaged, but just days before the wedding, Anderson disappeared; he was discovered living with a Mormon sect in England. Armed with surveillance equipment, handcuffs, chloroform and phony revolvers, McKinney flew to England to “rescue” Anderson from his newfound “cult,” with two bodyguards, a male accomplice and a private pilot in tow.
Here’s McKinney’s version of what followed: despite her insane intentions, Anderson left willingly from the convent with her, shacked up with her all weekend, and then agreed to marry her, only to be persuaded by the Mormons into abandoning her again. But according to the flurry of British tabloid stories covering the scandal, McKinney not only kidnapped but “raped” Anderson, and his return to the Mormons was nothing short of escape. The later coverage of McKinney’s fleeing the U.K. while standing trial, her eluding the authorities in thinly-veiled disguises (as a nun and as a Calcutta housewife), and her alleged past career as a nude model and call-girl cemented her as a degenerate. Still infatuated with Anderson—who later married an overweight Mormon and became an airplane toilet cleaner—McKinney remained celibate, living a mostly reclusive life on her father’s farm. For about thirty years, she’s been trying to write a fairy tale-style book about her travails.
As in his Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Errol Morris’ Tabloid (released on July 15), examines what is left, spiritually and mentally, of a once-respected, now-notorious figure, ruined by the unending scrutiny of trashy media. There is, however, one crucial difference. Mr. Death’s title character, a builder of more “humane” electric chairs, essentially crucified himself when he became a rallying Holocaust denier; Morris never questions Fred Leuchter’s guilt. In Tabloid, all of the subjects interviewed seem a little mad, yet they all possess hints of clarity and conviction; no one’s quite smart or stupid enough to believe or disavow.
McKinney, a blustering drama queen, a natural performance artist who laughs at her own jokes, tells a number of eyebrow-raising stories, such as one in which her van, which contained all the evidence necessary to exonerate her, was ransacked. Though she’s prone to break down crying at the negative light the media cast her in, there are times, both in her present-day interviews and in archival news footage, where McKinney seems overjoyed by any attention. “I loved him so much I would have skiied down Mount Everest naked with a carnation up my nose!” she told the press, and sure enough this led to satirical cartoons and packages of flowers sent her way, to her delight. While most alleged criminals would play down their romantic obsessions, McKinney was no apologist; in the classified ad requesting bodyguards for her mission, she described the job as helping “a lovely fox fulfill a unique romantic sexual fantasy.”
On the other hand, the two British journalists featured in Tabloid—Daily Express columnist Peter Tory and Daily Mirror photographer Kent Gavin—are so heedlessly snarky, so dripping with contempt for McKinney and her emotional issues, that their so-called “objectivity” can be dismissed as baiting an easy target. In true Errol Morris fashion, the audience comes away equally disgusted with McKinney and her foes in the press. Gavin admits that he bribed McKinney’s vengeful ex-boyfriend to dig up lurid, often sadomasochistic photos of her for the Daily Mirror story, which ran the same day as McKinney’s more sympathetic profile in the Daily Express. The press are clearly the amoral wags they’re depicted as in countless E! True Hollywood specials—try not to hiss when Gavin chuckles at McKinney’s suicide attempt after his pictorial got published—yet McKinney’s claims that the photos were meddled with are just as dubious.
Morris brings out such ease in his subjects that they seem to want to come off trashy, or at least pathetic. McKinney has no shame in recounting her bouts with agoraphobia, her mounting paranoia, in the aftermath of the tabloid nightmare (to document this, Morris gives us chilling excerpts from McKinney’s meandering home videos in the late 1980s). She’s a grandiose, hilariously loony storyteller, recalling how, after her bulldog Booger died, she enlisted a Korean doctor to clone the dog and wound up with five mini-Boogers—and yes, Morris interviews the crackpot doctor.
But it’s not just McKinney who gets her share of hysterically funny moments in Tabloid. The pilot she hired for the kidnapping/rescuing job, Jackson Shaw, recounts, with a leering glimmer in his eyes, how allured he was by McKinney’s see-through dress. Morris, whose goofy, curious, disembodied voice pipes up more than in past outings, clearly adores his creepy subjects, adores playing their individual stories off of each other, and his joy is infectious.
The main flaw with Tabloid–and it’s a big one—is that stylistically, Morris panders to his audience more than before. The same scholarly elements—the lilting piano score (by John Kusiak), the talking head interviews frequently broken up by blackouts—that make Morris’ films more elegant and less shoddy than other documentaries, are present. But for some reason, he’s added an abundance of inane, overly emphatic cartoons, sound effects and black and white comedy clips to underscore his points. Characters are introduced via typewriter noises and titles zooming to the screen, in tabloid fashion. A subject discusses how a man tore a phone out of a wall, and Morris shows old footage of a fat, Curly-like figure ripping a phone out of a wall. Morris has always been playful, even mischievous, but this time, much of his antics come off as frivolous.
(photos: homepage, Errol Morris; article: still from the film)