The so-called "Mormon Sex in Chains" case of 1977 was the stuff of tabloid sensationalism: a love-smitten former Miss Wyoming World travels to England and kidnaps the man of her dreams, who is serving an LDS mission there. With the help of an accomplice, she sneaks him off to a cottage in the English countryside, binds him on a bed with ropes and chains, and has her way with him for three days. At last the missionary escapes, which leads to the arrest of the woman and her accomplice. But before they can be tried in English courts, they don disguises, skip bail and disappear back in America.
Little wonder, then, that this story is at the heart of "Tabloid," a new documentary film by Academy Award-winner Errol Morris, which is opening at theaters around the country on Friday.
Morris, who won an Oscar in 2003 for "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," told the Wall Street Journal that "tabloid stories have fascinated me for as long as I can remember."
A great tabloid story, Morris says, is "sensationalistic and graphic. It draws you in because of its strangeness and its peculiarity. And when you go into it, you invariably discover something more. It's like unraveling a sweater when you see a loose piece of yarn and it leads you to really unexpected things. For me, there has to be a human element."
And for Morris, the human element in this story was McKinney, the former beauty queen convicted in absentia of kidnapping Kirk Anderson while he was serving his LDS mission in England. When McKinney resurfaced in news stories in 2008 for having her dog cloned in Korea, Morris was hooked.
"There was an inherent mystery: the connection between the two stories," he told the Journal. "She herself lays it out in the film when she says, 'I don't see what a 32-year-old sex-and-chains story has to do with dog cloning.' But they are connected. That same person was involved . . . For me the movie is a wonderful essay on truth, reality, evidence and last but not least obsession."
When a Vanity Fair reporter suggested that the link between the two stories — the kidnapping and the cloning — is that McKinney couldn't let go of either the missionary or the dog, Morris responds: "She can't let go of anything."
Vanity Fair also asked about Anderson, who was not interviewed for the documentary.
"We found out where he lived and we sent registered mail but we never heard back from him," Morris said. "We tried to contact various people in the LDS Church, particularly the church elder who was present in the U.K. when all of this went down in the 1970s. But we never got a response."
As a result, Morris acknowledged that the documentary is unavoidably one-sided. "(Joyce's friend and accomplice Keith May) died. I couldn't interview (him) as much as I might like to interview him. And Kirk Anderson won't speak . . . So all I have is Joyce. It's an interesting problem because you have a net cast around that love cottage and the remaining mystery of what actually went down inside that love cottage."
Whether or not Morris was successful at negotiating that "interesting problem" is a matter of some dispute. Armond White of the New York Press refers to Morris as "a personality-hacker. He gets McKinney, Daily Express 'reporter' Peter Tory, The Mirror's photographer Kent Gavin, gay activist Troy Williams and others to confess their involvement with McKinney's offenses while hiding their own selfish agendas. Morris' agenda is simple condescension; he likes laughing at eccentricity, pathology and weirdness."
White claims that "Morris' unscrupulousness furthers the corrupt tabloid tradition he pretends to ironically critique. By joining the media's exploitation of this pathetic woman, 'Tabloid' is horrendously inhumane. Evading the issue of what used to be called 'yellow journalism,' Morris' depraved method prevents us from ever getting out of this swamp."
Writing for the Film Journal Review, critic Dorothy Toumarkine said "viewers will be forgiven for feeling a little dirty after watching 'Tabloid.'"
She concludes: "So many documentaries admirably serve up protagonists and missions that signal hope for our messy world. With 'Tabloid,' Morris will have none of that, preferring to give viewers something else they need — a world much crazier than their own."
Jennifer Merin of About.com wrote that "it's easy to see why Morris, who is known for his intimate and revealing profiles of famously controversial figures, would find McKinney an intriguing subject. Her take on life is odd in the extreme, but she's smart and also articulate, and she has no compunctions about speaking out — or ranting.
"However, in interviewing McKinney for 'Tabloid' and presenting her peculiar story, Morris seems to merely dismiss points McKinney underscores and, even worse, never acknowledges that he knows . . . that McKinney is a deeply disturbed — no, delusional — human being, a woman who's out of control. Yet, she's mercilessly encouraged to spin on, making statements that don't make sense.
"Documentary filmmakers aren't responsible for saving their subjects from themselves, but the best profiles show some compassion and an attitude of considerate restraint. That those qualities are lacking in 'Tabloid' renders the documentary an arrogant, obscene, inexcusable example of tabloid exploitation."
An alternative point of view was expressed by A.O. Scott in the New York Times: "Although Mr. Morris caters to our never-sated appetite for titillating tidbits — and lets us take a few nips at the ink-stained hands that feed us those shocking, nasty morsels — in 'Tabloid' he also offers a bit of escapism. We can turn away from the ugly spectacle of cellphone hacking and political bullying currently roiling Rupert Murdoch's empire and revisit the once-notorious case of the 'Manacled Mormon,' which long ago offered the British reading public a bit of good, clean, dirty fun."