The reality of a film like Tabloid is that there aren’t easy answers. It’s all about perspective, and given Errol Morris’ inclination to use talking head segments and archival footage to push his narrative along, one has to pass judgment based on what we see and hear. It’s Morris’ method that makes Tabloid work, largely because he refuses to compromise or take a side – he allows those on camera to construct their identities. What makes Tabloid such a riot is how, more often than not, those same individuals are deconstructing the identity that they served to create.
Tabloid zeros in on the exploits of Joyce McKinney. A former Miss Wyoming beauty queen, the blonde bombshell, now in her fifties, discusses her rather lurid young adult life. Having been accused of abducting her Mormon boyfriend, McKinney caused a bit of a stir among British tabloids during the late 70s. The abduction is less eye-brow raising than what happens afterward - McKinney apparently imprisons her young Mormon lover for several days, exposing him to a variety of sexual acts: most of which are done while he’s chained to a bed. Two publications in particular, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Express, competed against each other to best rake in the muck. This competition amongst publications served to denounce McKinney and paint her as a bit of a sex nymph. Such muckraking was grounded on, at best, dubious facts.
Tabloid’s effectiveness stems from Morris allowing his subject, McKinney, free reign to say and do just about anything in front of the camera. It gives the audience the opportunity to take what she says, analyze the way in which she says it, and allows us to shape our own perception on the matter. Of course, we’re basing this entirely from one perspective (McKinney’s love interest refused to be interviewed for the film), but Morris is very clever in the way he ties the film together – while one can’t gather what side Morris is on, he does take some light jabs at both sides.
But what Tabloid does best is that it allows Morris to shed light on a phenomenon that plagues our own society. Before Lindsay Lohan, before Charlie Sheen, McKinney’s exploits garnered attention. Her actions were the same sort of thing that captures the headlines these days – little has changed when it comes to using sex and deviance as a method of capturing the public’s collective attention. But what Morris doesn’t do, and what I really had hoped he would do, is bring to question the gender politics of the entire situation. Had the roles been reversed, had McKinney been the subject of sexual exploitation, I suspect the public wouldn’t take too kindly to it. But the luridness, the idea that women could engage in sexually deviant behavior (the audacity!) was enough to cloud public perception and reject fact for giddy fiction.