When we’re first introduced to Joyce McKinney, she’s greeting the camera with an excerpt from her memoir in the making, A Very Special Love Story. What follows is a very special love story indeed, as Errol Morris’ documentary, Tabloid, proceeds to explore the peculiar circumstances behind the former beauty queen’s notoriety in the late ‘70s and how that period spent in the public eye has defined her life ever since.
“I hadn’t been out in the world much, until I went to Utah,” the one-time Miss Wyoming World explains, directly to the camera in typical Morris fashion. There, Joyce met Kirk Anderson, a Mormon lad for whom she fell head over heels, but once Kirk vanishes, she hires a private investigator and tracks him down to England. Insisting that he’s been kidnapped by the church (as opposed to willingly serving as a missionary there), she hired on pilots and bodyguards, packed up wigs, listening devices, chloroform and a fake gun, and took off across the Atlantic in an effort to rescue her beloved.
To hear it from her, he was being brainwashed by the Mormons and she was saving Kirk by taking him to a far-off cottage, tying him down and screwing the fear of God right out of him. To hear it from him, he -- despite dwarfing her -- was kidnapped and raped by his darling ex-beauty queen (a scenario that she declares impossible, comparing it to “putting a marshmallow in a parking meter”). Her arrest garnered her the tabloid spotlight, because who wasn’t dying to hear the tale of the Manacled Mormon? From there, the accounts of those interviewed only grow more complicated while the truth proves in other unpredictable and unbelievable ways to be so much stranger than fiction.
When recalling the story, one of the tabloid journalists on camera describes Kirk as having been tied up with ropes, but then changes it because “chains sounds better.” Morris doesn’t steer away from sensationalizing the story himself, using a scrapbook motif throughout and flashing faux-titillating words on the screen -- “totally see-through,” “kidnapped,” “spread-eagled” complete with eagle’s cry -- for maximum amusement. Tabloid operates as both an examination of the dominating media mentality at the time and an embodiment of it, no less keen on delving into the juicy details now as tabloid rags were then. It’s as much about a story of love, however unlikely, as it is the love of a story.
At the center of it all remains McKinney, a perfectly perky personality who certainly seems well-suited to beauty pageants and wide-eyed notions of True Love. How she was able to afford her transcontinental ordeal is eventually addressed (after all, most models in 1977 wouldn’t have been afford to hire their own pilots and bodyguards by keeping their clothes on), and though the film’s subject doesn’t seem above delusion -- as she puts it, “you can tell a lie long enough that you start to believe it” -- she’s also not above the emotional erosion that comes from having your name and body exploited and exposed time and time again.
And then, just when you think that shenanigans are winding down, Morris clings on long enough to deliver one extra doozy of attention-earning behavior on Joyce’s part. Like everything else in Tabloid, it’s almost too good to be true, and Tabloid is good enough to know that it doesn’t necessarily have to be in order to sell a couple of copies.
Since the film speaks well enough for itself, there are no extras on the disc save for a trailer.