“Tabloid,” the new documentary by Errol Morris, is a reversion to the kind of weird-people material that has long been his specialty. Although he won an Oscar for “The Fog of War,” about Robert McNamara, and most recently made “Standard Operating Procedure,” about Abu Ghraib prison, Morris is more closely identified with such films as “Mr. Death,” a documentary about an expert electric chair builder and Holocaust denier, or his first film, “Gates of Heaven,” about a pet cemetery (not the Stephen King kind).
Joyce McKinney, the subject of “Tabloid,” was a former beauty pageant queen from North Carolina who moved to Utah and fell in love with a Mormon boy, Kirk Anderson. When in 1977 Anderson moved to London on church business, McKinney followed him and then, although accounts diverge at this point, apparently kidnapped him and held him sexual hostage in a cottage in Devon.
The British tabloids had a field day with the story – Anderson claimed she raped him, she claimed they had a romantic tryst in their “love cottage.” Arrested, McKinney gets out of jail and flees to Canada and then to America. Newspaper ads are subsequently uncovered in which she appears to have advertised herself as an S&M call girl. She denies it all vehemently and claims the photos are doctored. She’s arrested in 1984 for stalking Anderson in Salt Lake City. Did I mention that, years later, she figures out a way to clone her beloved deceased pit bull?
Morris expends a lot of screen time interviewing McKinney, who is not exactly camera shy. (As usual, he utilizes his customized “Interrotron,” a teleprompter that projects Morris’s face in front of the camera so that his subjects are required to look into his eyes and into the lens simultaneously). Is she a complete mythomaniac – a fabulist diva made in tabloid heaven? Morris is clearly fascinated by her mega eccentricities and lets her go on at great length telling her side of the story.
In the end, he probably makes too much of it all, using McKinney’s fantasias as a springboard for deep-dish philosophizing about the nature of truth and how we are shaped by the media. Sometimes a tabloid story is just a tabloid story. (And this one’s a lulu). One thing is certain: Morris has handed McKinney the greatest starring role of her life.