Joyce McKinney in her prime was a southern blonde bombshell spread across the British tabloids after a scandal emerged in which she was said to have captured and chained a lost male lover. She was a tremendous star in 1977, a dubious honor from an affair she firmly denies, and retells, rather, in an absorbing and exorbitant manner. She was in love, she says, merely going after the man who stole her heart after he was shipped away for a mission with the Mormon church. And thus you have Tabloid, Errol Morris’ new documentary that is an inquiry into the fascination of tabloid exploitation, and more so into its own interview subject, whose own profile walks a fine line between exposition and exploitation.
In 1977, unbeknownst to her love, McKinney arranged a reunion with him that involved a bodyguard, a private pilot, surveillance equipment, and a substantial stack of cash that seemed to appear from nowhere. From the outside looking in it’s enough to make for a spy thriller, not a love story. And yet, as McKinney tells her story, smilingly, and with fluency so innocent she single-handedly makes Eddie Murphy relevant with a Norbit fat suit reference, you not only believe her but are endeared to her.
Morris, whose voice breaks through the fourth wall with invasive abruptness from time to time to ask her questions off screen, hardly derails her thoughts that are coming in full paragraphs and pages. She is her own staunch and sole defender in a story that had the rest of the world reeling, and eventually questioning the very identity she put forth. For, once we’re acquainted with her side of the story, her detractors arrive with a vengeance, giving us proof of a life beyond her fairy tale love story, including a portfolio of S&M modeling that is anything but Mormon approved.
While by the end of the film you are not quite sure whose story is accurate (were those photos doctored or real? What happened to the stockpile of photo negatives the tabloid journalists claim exist?) there’s a nagging sense that it probably doesn’t matter. Tabloid—an otherwise crisply shot movie that has you enraptured with its brimming character and smartly edited collection of interview, home movie and newsreel footage—is itself a perpetuation of the very problem it investigates: exploitation.
Its exploitation, in particular, falls along gender lines. The only female character we meet is McKinney, who is pitted against a male journo with a penchant for peppering his phrases with the word “spread-eagled,” the private pilot who recalls the day he met McKinney wearing a see-through shirt, and a photographer for the Mirror in Britain who chased leads exhaustively to find nude photos of McKinney to publish. It’s easy to malign someone who has so clearly been exploited already. It’s almost like she’s being put on trial by a panel of men who’ve enforced the cultural standard that she exploit her sexuality for money. Exploitation is, after all, a tabloid’s business, and Joyce McKinney was a cash cow for it.
Or maybe Joyce McKinney, with her 168 IQ score, is a smart woman who’s meticulously, just plain obsessively in control of her image, of her femininity and of her sexuality that she uses to her advantage against the patriarchy. Is McKinney herself exploiting the business whose aim is to exploit her? Is she mocking the tabloids? “If you tell a lie long enough, you learn to believe it,” she says in one moment.
I am hard pressed to think someone would say such a thing if she wasn’t lying, and McKinney’s nude photos do seem real to me, yet she declares that is just not true. All the while the debate of a tabloid’s value continues without awareness of (or at least acknowledgment of) Morris’ own accountability in the process of exploitation. Maybe the truth of McKinney’s story will eventually come to light, but in the meantime, I reject Tabloid’s premise with a shrug.