Shiny Shelf


By Jim Smith on 19 October 2010

Errol Morris’ droll, hugely enjoyable and often baffling documentary is a feature length profile of Joyce McKinney.

“Who is she?” you may ask.  Well, in 1977 McKinney was a news sensation in the UK due to her involvement in a scandal that became known as ‘The Case of the Manacled Moron’.

A former Miss Wyoming and part-time glamour model, McKinney had come to the UK to reunite herself with a Mormon missionary who may or may not (opinions vary and I endorse none) have previously either been her lover or promised to marry her. McKinney was arrested after said missionary contact police and claimed that he had been abducted by McKinney and held captive as a sex slave in a Devon cottage over several days.  McKinney was arrested, appeared in court to answer the charges (offering some choice quotes along the way) and then promptly skipped bail, flying back to the USA via Canada. Disguised as a member of a deaf/dumb circus troupe.

No, really.

The scandal caused a circulation war amongst Britain’s tabloid newspapers. The Daily Express signed McKinney herself up for interviews in which she put her side of the story while the Daily Mirror alleged, seemingly with photographic evidence, that McKinney had offered sexual services for cash in Utah and had a history of odd behaviour. The Daily Mail attempted to seize the moral high ground by declaring itself “The paper without Joyce McKinney”.

This film, fortunately, is not without Joyce McKinney. She is present not simply in archive footage from 1977 but also in extensive new interviews.  Employees of both the Express and the Mail are also interviewed, describing how they put their stories together and tried to outdo each other.

Morris’ use of ‘found’ footage, contemporary news reports, animations and press cuttings is often wryly deconstructive or  creates insightful juxtapositions and the picture is consistently both hugely amusing and genuinely informative. What it isn’t is partial. Morris doesn’t really take sides.  Nor does his picture subscribe fully to either of the papers’ stories; or  create or toe a line of its own.  Instead, the film simply allows a large variety of people connected with the story the opportunity to state their cases. Any contradictions in the narrative that emerge, and there are many, are left to the viewer to reconcile as he or she sees fit.

I think it is fair to say that while nobody comes out of the film looking malicious or full of evil intentions, no one comes out of it looking good. Not the Mirror, not the Express, not the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints and certainly not Joyce McKinney.

One of the journalists happily describes McKinney as “barking mad” and while I’m not necessarily endorsing that view, I do think she’s easily the single most ridiculous real person I’ve ever observed in any form in any medium at any point in my life. Her protestations that she simply wanted a quiet life and that her dream of one has been ruined forever by the intrusions of others are profoundly unconvincing.

And I thought that before we got to the last third of the film; which is devoted to her second bout of public notoriety from the late 1990s, when she spent $50,000 on cloning pitbulls.

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