On first look, Errol Morris' documentary appears to tell McKinney's story, drawing from the story reported by British tabloids in 1977. But it's also about truth and storytelling more broadly, the ways stories escape their tellers.
"Dogs and children love me, they love Joyce McKinney," says Joyce McKinney, "Because they sense in me an innocence, you know, they sense in me a gentleness. And they don’t read tabloid papers. They love me for me." In asserting there is a "me" to love for itself, a "me" that might be intuited by children and puppies, McKinney sounds like everyone else who believes she has a consistent, legible self, visible for all to see. But as she makes her assertion, near the end of Tabloid, it's not so clear that this belief holds up -- for her or anyone else.
On first look, Errol Morris' documentary appears to tell McKinney's story, drawing from the story reported by British tabloids in 1977. A former beauty queen, she became the center of a scandal when she flew from Los Angeles to London, England, in pursuit of her ex-boyfriend, a Mormon named Kirk Anderson. Theirs had been a storybook romance, as she recalls it: "When I met my Kirk, it was like in the movies when the girl comes down the stairs and their eyes meet, when Romeo sees Juliet." Coming from a small town in North Carolina, she felt swept off her feet, by Kirk and the promise he embodied. "He had the most beautiful blue eyes and the sexiest smile," she says, "and he always had the cleanest skin."
While Joyce speaks, the film shows old film footage of Kirk (who declined to be interviewed), not exactly looking like her description, as well as brief clips from the animated Book of Mormons, golden-haired figures joining hands and bearing children. Her story -- already fictional, already escaping her -- is further complicated by an interview with Peter Tory, then the gossip columnist for the Daily Express. His version of Kirk has little to do with hers, being a "very big, rather flabby, 300-pound six foot three, not athletic or attractive looking man at all, in accepted sense of the word." Tory determines that he was "the last person in the world you'd think would be the object of this kind of strange sexual passion."
That passion, according to the tabloids at the time, was McKinney's. Working with an "accomplice" (Keith May, deceased in 2004, the film notes), she reportedly kidnapped Anderson, attempted to seduce him, and, when that failed, tied him to a bed and raped him. This, at least, was Anderson's story after he returned to the Mormons and his missionary work. She maintains that the getaway was consensual, that she stocked their cottage refrigerator with his favorite foods, like chocolate cake and fried chicken (here a vintage refrigerator ad shows a wasp-waisted lady with her perfect appliance), that he had been sent off on his mission by a mother who disapproved of her, and also that he had promised to return to Joyce (this as she sees him off at a train station, a moment of loss and longing and hope evoked by a scene from Brief Encounter).
Instead, Anderson told the story of his kidnapping. McKinney was arrested and scheduled for a trial. She describes her first encounter with the British press as life-changing: "I was suddenly a celebrity. I didn’t ask to be a celebrity, I didn’t want to be a celebrity, but it was like a wave, it was like a phenomenon," she says. She rode the wave, at least to a point, smiling for photos, granting at least one television interview (framed in the film very literally, in an old-school console), in which she extolled her love for Anderson: "It's amazing how the public has responded," says her 1977 self. Indeed. When she proclaims she would “ski down Mt. Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose” if Anderson asked her to, it becomes a kind of all-meaning sign of obsession -- hers and the media's -- serving as headlines, photo ops and editorial cartoons, oddball fantasies all around.
When she's at last released on bail, McKinney and May escape back to the States in 1978, disguising themselves as members of a "troop of deaf actors." (To this day, the film observes, she is a "fugitive from justice.") In America, McKinney worries that her story is getting away from her, that the tabloids have it wrong. And so she calls up Tory and invites him over for an exclusive interview -- for £40,000. He remembers that when he met with her, she and May were wearing disguises, their faces darkened like East-Asian Indians. "She was having really the time of her life and giving us all this nonsense, a totally sanitized version of the truth," the reporter says now. "And we were falling for it, of course. Getting it all onto these little tape recorders and thinking, 'God, hasn’t the Express got a great story?"
At the same time, Kent Gavin of the Daily Mirror was getting another story, courtesy of Steve Moskowitz, an ex-boyfriend of McKinney who was "still madly in love with her." (McKinney notes, "I mean, worms crawl of out the woodwork when you become famous.") He provided photos, magazine covers, classified ads, and phone bill, demonstrating that she was not the innocent model she said she was, but instead was a prostitute. Gavin used this info as the basis of a series of sensational stories in the Mirror, describing McKinney as a "call girl, she was being paid for sexual services." The contrast with the other McKinney is startling and also not. "He's betraying her," Morris says of Moskowitz. Gavin nods, but adds, "I don’t think he knew how much he was giving to us."
It's a key point for Tabloid, that individuals involved with the press -- as objects or producers or consumers -- don't always "know." They don't know what they're "giving," they don't anticipate consequences, they don't know if what they're reading or seeing is even close to a truth. Tabloids are only the most extreme versions of this tenuous relationship between experiences, of storytelling and use, of truth-seeking and exploitation. As the documentary illustrates pieces of multiple stories with film clips or animation, headlines and photos, it doesn't so much present a truth as it questions all of them. By the time Joyce McKinney is again the object of tabloid photographers, holding cloned puppies in South Korea, the circle of celebrity seems both reinforced and imploded. (The metaphor offered by cloning -- as a concept and a practice -- feels almost delirious.)
Of course, as McKinney and and others remember her past (and yes, as her past is re-materialized in her puppies), the film reminds you that memories can be faulty -- self-serving, idealized, fuzzy or wrong. But even mistakes or lies can be revealing. As Joyce puts it, "You can tell yourself a million times, 'God knows the truth,' and it would be nice if all you had to deal with was God. But you don’t, you have to deal with people."
Dealing with people, the truth becomes subjective, shifting, and various. Dealing with people, like filmmakers or reporters, your story is no longer your own -- if it ever was. Even as McKinney now contests the story told in Tabloid, it's never quite been hers to hold on to. And in that, for all the lurid oddity attached to Joyce McKinney, she's too much like everyone else.