From Patty Hearst to O.J. Simpson to Lindsay Lohan to Casey Anthony, the people who seize and hold our imagination in tabloid news stories don’t just do so because they’re at the center of grippingly lurid events. When these stories really connect, it’s because the people in them have an aura, an inimitable tawdry glow. (John Waters said, ”Everyone looks better under arrest.” The best tabloid subjects look fantastic under arrest.) Joyce McKinney, the crazy-love Southern belle at the heart of Errol Morris’ succulent, fascinating, and bizarrely touching documentary Tabloid, is one of those people.
You probably haven’t heard of her, but back in 1977 she was a former beauty-queen contestant who gave up everything to stalk and possess the man of her dreams. He was a Mormon, and what happened blew up into a scandal that kept on giving. True love. Religious rage. Kidnapping. Bondage. The girl next door?turned?secret prostitute. And dog cloning! In photographs and home movies from the time, Joyce McKinney has a flirty kitten-with-a-whip innocence — she’s like Veronica Lake in go-go boots — and Morris, interviewing her now, doesn’t have to do much coaxing. She’s perky and articulate and outrageously self-justifying. She offers her version of how, and why, she tailed her lover, Kirk Anderson, to England, abducted him from a Mormon meetinghouse, and took him to a cottage where she bound him to a bed and had sex with him for three days. The story may sound like an erotically charged version of Stephen King’s Misery, but McKinney, who’s very lucid about her own obsessiveness, convinces you that she wasn’t just deranged but a true romantic out to save a man she felt (not without some ? evidence) had been brainwashed. She used sex to deprogram him.
That’s the tip of the salacious iceberg. Why retell this story now? Morris, interviewing the Fleet Street reporters and photographers who covered the events at the time, wants to deconstruct the addictive, almost metastasizing power of how tabloid news stories work on us. At 88 minutes, Tabloid is short and sweet (it’s pure movie candy), but by the end we’ve forged an emotional connection to Joyce McKinney at the deep core of her unapologetic fearless/nutty valor. And that’s what really makes a great tabloid story: It’s a vortex that’s also a mirror. A