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‘Tabloid’: You couldn’t make up this story

Majestically swathed in a pink evening gown and tugging the leash of one of her cloned pit bulls, Joyce McKinney was ready for her close-up.

The zaftig former Miss Wyoming was milling outside the Vista movie theater in Los Feliz, minutes after a Wednesday night screening of “Tabloid,” the latest film from Oscar-winning documentary maker Errol Morris. “Tabloid,” which opens in theaters Friday, unspools the outlandish tale of a ‘70s transatlantic caper involving McKinney’s alleged abduction of her Mormon missionary boyfriend, kinky sex, ethically challenged Fleet Street reporters and a shadowy cast of supporting characters straight out of a film noir.

At the saga’s center is McKinney, now in her late 50s or early 60s, who, depending on your viewpoint, was either a virginal, God-fearing, gutsy Southern belle trying to rescue her brainwashed fiancé from the clutches of a sexually repressive cult, only to be ruthlessly exploited by sleazy checkbook journalists (McKinney’s version); or an obsessive, self-deluded manipulator with a taste for S&M. Or both. Or neither.

In the run-up to the movie’s release, McKinney has been at odds with Morris and the filmmakers, appearing at advance screenings and publicly denouncing parts of it as defamatory, libelous and a “celluloid catastrophe.” So, when Morris introduced McKinney to the audience as a “surprise guest” at Wednesday night’s post-screening Q&A, it was a life-imitates-Hollywood moment so perfect it might’ve been scripted.

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As occurs in “Tabloid,” McKinney’s mesmerizing presence upstaged the rest of the show. Clearly basking in her role as a newly minted movie star, she arrived at the Sunset Boulevard screening in a white limousine, posed for cellphone pictures with fans and declared that she would be happy to take a meeting with any mogul interested in filming another movie about her: the greatest love story ever told.

“See, if I would’ve done this film, I would’ve done it straight,” McKinney said in a brief interview. “If I had done it as a documentary, I would’ve done it as an investigative piece. If I did it as a feature film, I would have done it as a love story and a cult-rescue story. And if there’s a producer out there who would like to do the true Joyce McKinney story, about the love story, I will tell you my agent!”

McKinney’s attendance appeared to signal a partial truce between her and the “Tabloid” filmmakers, although during the Q&A, McKinney gently chided Morris for repeating suggestions in his film that she might have worked for a time as a dominatrix, or worse. “Shame on you, Errol,” she told him.

Morris, whose previous films plumbed the depths of a Texas death-row inmate’s unjust conviction (“The Thin Blue Line”) and threaded the labyrinthine brain of one of the architects of the Vietnam debacle (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara”), appeared alternately delighted and bemused by Wednesday’s proceedings. Asked whether he thought that he and McKinney had buried the hatchet, Morris demurred.

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“I don’t know what to think,” he said. “I have never been unwilling to appear with Joyce. I’ve always found Joyce fascinating, and I still find her fascinating.”

In an interview last week at a Beverly Hills hotel, Morris said he had long been a devoted reader of tabloids such as the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News. He said he first thought of making a film about McKinney when she resurfaced in the global media three decades after stories with headlines such as “Sex in Chains” and “Manacled Mormon” titillated the world.

That was in 2008, when McKinney paid a South Korean doctor thousands of dollars to have her beloved pet pit bull cloned. Photos of the resulting litter of five puppies thrust McKinney back into popular awareness. Intrigued, Morris tracked her down in North Carolina and eventually persuaded her to sit in front of a camera.

She was a natural, and her soliloquies — funny, whip-smart and colorfully colloquial — form the dramatic core of a movie that’s both riveting and unsettling.

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“I think Joyce is one of the best interviews that I’ve ever done,” said Morris, a connoisseur of slippery truths, unreliable narrators and the symbiotic alchemy that transpires between interviewers and their subjects. He has said that if there were an Oscar for best performance in a documentary, McKinney would win it.

Like most of Morris’ previous films, “Tabloid” raises questions about how our notions of reality can be shaped by fantasies and delusions, and it leaves viewers to sift through sometimes contradictory information that’s coated in a residue of doubt.

“You know, if you asked me, ‘Do you get Joyce McKinney?’ I would have to say, ‘Not really,’” Morris said last week. “I actually — and I would include myself — I think we are mysteries to ourselves.”

The world may have another chance to “get” McKinney, who seems in no hurry to give up her latest Warholian moment in the spotlight.

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“I gauge peoples’ reactions when I go to the screenings,” she said. “The first time I saw the film, I vomited. When they laughed, I cried. It’s easier now. It’s not as hard.

“But I still watch people’s faces as they come out, and I look at them and I think, ‘Well, are they being nice to me ‘cause I’m a star? Or do they really know that I’m innocent, that I never raped a 300-pound Mormon?’ Am I still battling to clear my name? Yes, I feel I am.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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