Errol Morris’ Tabloid is the only documentary I know of in which every interviewee is an unreliable narrator. On the one hand, we have the subject of the film, Joyce McKinney, telling her side of the story. The audience only has her word to go on, which is by and large the problem all documentaries face. She tells us, for instance, that she has an IQ of 168. On the other hand, we have several people – some directly involved in her case, others indirectly – using a combination of photographs, interviews, intuition, personal testimonies, and pure speculation to give their interpretation of her side of the story. Everyone is an observer giving vastly different but equally plausible accounts. It’s Rashomon without the samurais. Not knowing the truth makes for a surprisingly fascinating viewing experience. I recommend you try it.
Morris doesn’t interview McKinney so much as sit back and let her talk, for he knew how badly she wanted a platform to speak her mind. I will try to establish the facts of the case, although this will be difficult, since the facts are often times in question. A Southern belle from North Carolina, McKinney was a natural blonde whose early life was defined almost entirely by beauty pageants. In the 1970s, after becoming Miss Wyoming World, she moved to Provo, Utah, where she would meet and fall in love with a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson. His sudden disappearance in 1977 would bring her to Los Angeles, where she earned enough money to hire a private investigator, who tracked Anderson to Surrey, England. McKinney then recruited a pilot named Jackson Shaw and a male acquaintance named Keith May to take her to Anderson’s location. She was, it seems, determined to rescue him and become his wife.
Why did he disappear in the first place? If you believe McKinney, Anderson was brainwashed. If you believe Anderson’s testimony, he felt so guilty about having premarital sex with McKinney that he confessed his sins to a local Bishop, who in turn sent Anderson on a church mission to England. Whatever the case, McKinney tracked Anderson down. According to her, they peacefully reunited, went to the picturesque cottage village of Devon, and attempted to rekindle their romance through unorthodox but harmless sexual practices. According to police reports, both McKinney and May used a fake gun to kidnap Anderson and hold him hostage in a Devon cottage. The report goes on to say that he was chained to a bed and sexually assaulted, presumably in an attempt to induce pregnancy and force him into marriage.
He was freed a few days later, and both McKinney and May were arrested and charged. McKinney asserts to this day that he went with her willingly, and that the reason she was caught was because he was found and re-indoctrinated by the Mormons. Reports say that Anderson, quite on his own, made a claim to the police that he was abducted and imprisoned against his will. Whatever the case, the incident received substantial coverage in British tabloids, most notably the Daily Mirror. Reporters dug deeply into McKinney’s past, although their findings remain controversial; according to the paper’s photographer, Kent Gavin, she was at one time a nude model and an escort specializing in kinky forms of sex play. Photos and ad clippings seem to corroborate this. McKinney claims that all scandalous photos of herself have been doctored. Visuals on the screen suggest that she might be right.
Both McKinney and May would ultimately jump bail and flee the U.K. When they were arrested in 1979 for making false statements in order to obtain passports – which involved very unconvincing costumes – they only received suspended sentences, and no extradition proceedings were instituted by the U.K. Anderson would eventually marry another woman and remain out of the public eye; not surprisingly, he declined to be interviewed for this documentary. McKinney faded into obscurity until 2008, when she travelled to South Korea to have her beloved dog, who she lost to cancer, cloned. She initially used the alias Bernann McKinney, mostly because she didn’t want to attract attention. After all, what does a Mormon sex scandal have to do with cloning dogs?
Morris opens and closes Tabloid with filmed footage of McKinney from the mid 1980s. In both instances, she reads excerpts from her memoir (which remains unpublished to this day). She begins with the words, “Once upon a time,” and continues to tell her story as if she were reading a fairy tale. She clearly believes everything she’s saying, and she views it all as if it came from the pages of a storybook. Perhaps the film isn’t really about her at all, but rather about the all-consuming power of celebrity, whether or not it’s wanted; from humble beginnings in the U.S., McKinney would travel to another country, capture the attention of the public, and be exploited in major newspapers. The film may also be a cautionary tale on the influence of hearsay over the public. McKinney has her account and the tabloids have theirs, and as Peter Tory of the Daily Express points out, “Somewhere in between lies the truth.”