Errol Morris couldn’t have dreamed up a better news hook for his documentary Tabloid than the phone-hacking scandal that took down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World on Sunday. Opening this weekend at Landmark’s Century Centre, Tabloid tells the outlandish but true story of Joyce McKinney, a beauty queen from North Carolina who traveled to the UK in the late 70s and allegedly kidnapped her Mormon boyfriend, who was undergoing missionary training there. The British tabloids had a field day with McKinney’s story, which included the boyfriend’s court testimony that she’d manacled him to a bed and forced him to have sex with her, and eventually an intrepid reporter for the Daily Mirror learned that McKinney allegedly had been advertised as a dominatrix in Los Angeles prior to her British adventure. Morris’s trademark device of superimposing giant type over his talking heads—Willing! Manacled Mormon!—often made me wonder if Morris were exposing the world of tabloid journalism or participating in it. But his bizarre love story confirms a fundamental truth about the scandal-rag business—what sells papers isn’t only the tawdriness of the story but the human emotion involved.
In this regard Morris’s biggest asset turns out to be McKinney herself, who agreed to sit for a single interview and spills out her life story with passion and humor. She’s enormously likable but also possibly, as Daily Express reporter Peter Tory remembers her, “barking mad.” Brought up a voluptuous sexual innocent in North Carolina and Wyoming, she competed in pageants and dreamed of meeting “a special guy.” She decided she’d found him when, living in Utah, she encountered Kirk Anderson, a tall and handsome young Mormon. “When I met my Kirk, it was like in the movies, where the girl comes down the stairs and their eyes meet,” McKinney recalls in the movie. “He had the most beautiful blue eyes, and the sexiest smile, and he always had the cleanest skin.” The two planned to marry, but his family resisted when McKinney pushed for a Christian marriage, and suddenly Anderson disappeared. After a private investigator located him in London, McKinney recruited three men, including a bodyguard and an airplane pilot, to help her rescue her fiance, deprogram him, and bring him back to the U.S.
Morris reconstructs the plot from interviews with McKinney, Tory, and Jackson Shaw, who came along on the expedition as McKinney’s pilot. After allegedly taking Anderson at gunpoint, McKinney and her devoted friend Keith Joseph May drove the young Mormon to a cottage in Devon and allegedly chained him to a bed spread-eagled (a word that Tory supplies and Morris accentuates by cutting back so it’s uttered twice). McKinney had stocked the refrigerator with all Anderson’s favorite foods, and she spent several days romancing him and, allegedly, trying to mount him so that she could be impregnated with his child. With her powers of sexual healing, she would liberate him from the cult of Mormonism. His brainwashing had left him impotent, McKinney claims, and raping him would have been “like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.” Anderson managed to persuade her to release him so that he could go straighten things out with the Mormon Church before they went off together; but instead he turned McKinney in to the police, and she spent about three months in London’s Holloway Prison awaiting trial on a kidnapping charge.
Tory, one of those elegant old cynics who define the British tabloid industry, marvels at the McKinney story: “It had kinky sex, it had religion, it had a beauty queen, kidnap at gunpoint, chains, being spread-eagled. It had Mormon missionaries. And there was something in that story for everyone. It was a perfect tabloid story.” McKinney maintains to this day that the British press ruined her life, but as the story raged in the fall of 1977—that same economically distressed period when the Sex Pistols broke in the UK as tabloid fodder—she proved herself equal to the task of celebrity. Released on bail, she made the social scene in London, showing up at the premiere for Saturday Night Fever and hanging out with the Bee Gees and Keith Moon, drummer for the Who. Then she and Keith May fled the UK, posing at the airport as deaf-mute students, and returned to the U.S. From there she contacted Tory and, he says, offered to sell her story to the Express for 40,000 pounds; he flew out to Atlanta and met her and May at the Hilton Hotel, where they arrived disguised as Indians. “She was having, really, the time of her life,” Tory recalls. “There was no sense of anxiety. She was just enjoying it.”
As Tory explains, the Express was locked in mortal combat with the Mirror for ownership of the McKinney story, and his antagonist in Tabloid is Kent Gavin, a silver-haired, sniggering, rather repellent photographer for the Mirror who traveled to Los Angeles and broke the story of McKinney’s exploits there. Steve Moskowitz, another of McKinney’s admirers, alerted Gavin to ads placed in the Los Angeles Free Press presenting her as “38-24-36, a slim, sweet Southern Blond. How would you like her to leisurely bathe you, lovingly blow-dry/style your hair, then give you a delicious nude massage on her fur-covered waterbed? Your fantasy is her specialty: S&M, B&D, escort service, nude wrestling/modeling, erotic phone calls, dirty panties or pictures.” Moskowitz also helped Gavin collect anywhere from 800 to 1,000 photos of McKinney, some of them nudes, some of them bondage shots. Gavin grins as he recalls how the Mirror hid Moskowitz in Mexico while the story broke; when he asked Moskowitz if he’d ever had sex with McKinney, Moskowitz replied, “Shoot, man, nobody’s ever had sex with Joyce.”
All this lunacy must have appealed greatly to Morris, who began his career documenting American eccentrics in Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981) but then established himself as a serious journalist when his documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988) helped exonerate one Randall Adams for the murder of a Texas police officer. Recent news reports that Adams died last October were a striking reminder that a movie has the power to save a man’s life, which has clearly inspired Morris to ever-more courageous examinations of the American soul. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) conflated capital punishment and Nazism with its profile of Leuchter, a specialist in execution technology who turned out to be a Holocaust denier. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert McNamara (2003) laid bare the conscience of the man who, as defense secretary to Lyndon Johnson, became the architect of the Vietnam war. And Standard Operating Procedure (2008) plunged into the dreck of the torture photos from Abu Ghraib, exploring not only their brutality but how the U.S. military used them to limit the fallout for what happened at the Iraqi prison.
Who wouldn’t need a break after all that? At the same time, Tabloid overlaps considerably with Standard Operating Procedure, which took a hard look at how the Abu Ghraib photos were disseminated in the media. It also seems like a natural progression from the outstanding series of critical pieces Morris has published in the New York Times examining the veracity and hidden agendas of news photographs. McKinney claims that erotic photos of her published in the British tabloids were doctored, and Morris obliges her with an animated sequence showing how her head might have been pasted onto another woman’s naked body. If Tabloid never quite makes good on the promise of media criticism inherent in its subject, that’s only because McKinney’s story—even the part she admits to—is such a jaw-dropping entertainment on its own. At one point in her incarceration she tore two blank pages from a prison Bible, wrote letters to her family and the press, rolled and inserted them into her rectum and vagina, and managed to drop them out a window to a waiting reporter. As she describes how she expelled them, Morris superimposes Pushed, Grunted, and Popped.
A story last week in the Times revealed that McKinney has been following Tabloid around from city to city, showing up at preview screenings in Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Sarasota, and New York City. In at least one case, she arrived in disguise and revealed herself after the movie; in others she’s heckled it during the screening. She says she intends to sue Morris and the producers, and various online reviews of Tabloid have attracted long, anonymous, but tellingly detailed comments signed “truthteller” that denounce the movie and threaten the reviewers and their Internet providers with legal action. (For my own history with Tabloid and “truthteller,” follow the link provided below.) You have to wonder what so infuriates McKinney about the movie, given that Morris has portrayed her exactly as she seems to view herself: as a hopeless romantic who’s never gotten over losing the man of her dreams. Whether or not she ever manacled Kirk Anderson to a bed, her idealized love for him has clearly become her ball and chain.
Editor’s note: This post has been amended to reflect that McKinney denies the filmmaker’s suggestion that she worked as a dominatrix.
Directed by Errol Morris