Like many of Errol Morris’s subjects, Joyce McKinney, the “star” of his most recent documentary, Tabloid, has a fascinating screen presence, playing on an earnestness that may be a mask for a more troubling pattern of obsessive behavior, while offering turns of phrases that only a former southern beauty queen could make believable. When asked at one point whether a woman could rape a man, she comments that “it would be like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.” For those who are unfamiliar with McKinney, she was a one-time beauty queen who notorious became involved in what was known as “the case of the manacled Mormon,” a story that was widely discussed in the British tabloids and involved, depending on who you believe, McKinney traveling to England to stalk, kidnap, and even rape an ex-boyfriend, Kirk Anderson, or the boyfriend getting whisked away and brainwashed by a secretive religious cult, with McKinney heroically trying to rescue him.
McKinney’s descriptions of her life–and the gossip reports that catapulted her to tabloid stardom for several years–become the fodder for several of Morris’s most significant pre-occupations, most notably the difficulties of resolving competing narratives. Is McKinney the innocent woman she portrays when she protests that she was a virgin when she slept with Kirk for the first time? Or is she the high-priced escort who posed nude and in bondage gear for dozens of underground men’s magazines? Or is the truth somewhere in between? As Morris notes, in this interview with Anthony Kaufman, it’s almost impossible to tease out the full truth of what happened, based on all of the conflicting accounts we are given. A private pilot tells us that McKinney hired him and a bodyguard to travel to England to track down Anderson. McKinney doesn’t deny this, emphatically stating, “I did what any girl would do [after he 'disappeared']–look for him.” But the pilot adds the detail that she asked him while posing nude on the beach for a gaggle of photographers. When she travels to England, it’s either a rescue or a kidnapping. McKinney remembers Kirk going voluntarily, enjoying the cinnamon oil back rubs, while court testimony suggests that McKinney chained him to the bed.
Naturally, these lurid details and McKinney’s quirky public performances make her story irresistible for the British tabloids. One Express reporter acknowledges that she was paid 40,000 pounds for her story and then describes a bizarre story in which Joyce, having skipped bail, meets the reporter at the Atlanta Airport Hilton with a companion wearing a disguise to make her appear to be an Indian woman “from Calcutta.” Meanwhile, a rival tabloid, The Daily Mirror manages to obtain hundreds of pictures of McKinney nude or in bondage gear, along with advertisements inviting sexual services. An acquaintance of McKinney’s confirms some details, and other photographers remember her, primarily because she was always accompanied by her pet dog, Millie.
Throughout the film, these questions about media sensationalism and Joyce’s own relationship to the tabloid press remain unresolvable. McKinney claims to have developed agoraphobia and complains about being stalked by paparazzi even years after her story left the tabloids, and yet, years later, she makes a dramatic return to the media fray when she spends thousands of dollars to get her beloved dog, Booger, cloned by a South Korean doctor. Morris isn’t afraid to dive into the lurid details here. As he himself puts it (in a statement quoted at Full Frame), the film is a return to “one of his favorite genres: sick, sad, and funny.” In places, in fact, the film seems to risk complicity with the tabloids in perpetuating the virgin/whore opposition that is used so often in the portrayal of women in the media, with McKinney serving as a slightly more predecessor to someone like Britney Spears. But I think that Morris is going after something deeper here. The film is a meditation on how we get a handle on the truth about ourselves and about the world around us, how the tabloids shape the news and engage our attention. As McKinney herself puts it at one point, “you can tell a lie long enough ’til you believe it.”