During the Q&A Wednesday night following Jayne Mansfield’s Car – the opening night film for the Lone Star Film Festival – an audience member asked, “Did you pull from a dysfunctional family you knew?”
“It was a dysfunctional family I was in,” shot back the film’s writer and director, Billy Bob Thornton.
Dysfunction is all over Jayne Mansfield’s Car – and the dysfunction is the result of war.
Set in 1969 Alabama, a trio of brothers is still reeling from their World War II experiences. One (Kevin Bacon) becomes a vocal Vietnam protestor, another (Thornton) has seen his psychological growth severely stunted as a result of his harrowing experiences and the third (Robert Patrick) can’t get over his embarrassment over not seeing combat.
Meanwhile, the movie’s patriarch (Robert Duvall) is a hardened World War I vet. He becomes even more distant after his wife leaves him and takes up with and Englishman (John Hurt), who eventually breaks the news to her first family that she has died and wants to be buried back in Alabama. When the English visit the South, comedy, awkwardness and, ultimately, understanding follow.
“I always wanted to make a movie about the psychological affects of war on a family,” said Thornton.
And he wrote about what he knows. Thornton’s father was a Navy veteran whose coldness is the inspiration for Duvall’s character. And when Thornton was a child, his dad actually took him to see fresh car wrecks – something Duvall’s character is also fond of doing.
Thornton said during the Q&A that his father saw the wrecks as representative of life’s randomness. Why does one person live while another dies. If that sounds similar to the war experience, it’s intentional.
Thornton didn’t enjoy the wreck viewing all that much. But he did have a memorable encounter with a famous wrecked car – one so famous that it toured the tiny Arkansas town where he grew up.
That car, of course, was the 1966 Buick Electra that took Jayne Mansfield’s life in 1967.