The title of the new documentary, “Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me,” is almost a play on words. Anybody who remembers Smith in her time — the ’90s and early 2000s — figures “Oh, I KNOW her all right.”
But Ursula Macfarlane’s film, sort of a post mortem version of the recent Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears docs, spends much of its running time interviewing people who puncture that “golddigger,” “fame whore” famous-for-being-famous image.
“How dumb is Anna Nicole?” a tabloid headline from back then wondered. Cagey enough to bet on her best assets, play the angles, work the paparazzi, seize her chances and get famous and turn that into great wealth.
Golddigging? Yes, she turned on the Betty Boop (phone) voice for doddering, wheelchair-bound J. Howard Marshall, the rich old fool four times her age who pursued her, “protected” and financed her rise to fame and whose riches she sought a share of after his death. But “there was love there” witnesses interviewed here declare.
No real talent? Well, she mastered the stripper pole in a hurry, landed a laugh in her few big screen appearances (“The Hudsucker Proxy,” for one) and made the “reality” of her life as comical as it needed to be for chat show appearances and the reality TV series she starred in.
But as this portrait, painted by friends, confidantes, relatives, colleagues, tabloid journalists and a doctor seems finished and settled on the easel, just waiting for the pigment to dry, Macfarlane — who directed films on the “Charlie Hebdo” French magazine massacre and the fall of Harvey Weinstein — smears that paint to allow the viewer to return to a more manipulative, calculating and dishonest view of Smith.
We’ve picked up on the fact that the woman born Vicky Lynn Hogan “loved being the center of attention,” craved fame and wealth and reinvented herself more than once in the pursuit of her goals.
Some of the relatives who helped raise her — her late law-enforcement officer single mom Virgie is heard and seen in archival footage — talk about her impulsiveness, her pursuit of older men even as a teen, and her eagerness to use her libido and her looks to get out of Mexia, Texas.
Marrying a fry cook at the fried chicken joint where she worked at 17, having a son shortly after, gives credence to that impulsive reputation. Bailing on that marriage (that husband is missing from the interviews here) and becoming a stripper verifies her “I want lotsa money and didn’t-care-how-she-got-it reputation.
But as her origin story brings her into a Houston strip club, as her “flat chested” complaint becomes a goal that she works to pay for, as the newly-curvaceous bombshell finds herself summoned to be in front of Playboy cameras (like Pamela Anderson and Marilyn Monroe before her), a Guess Jeans honcho signs her up and “my dreams” all start coming true, the viewer can become swept up in how swiftly these things can happen to a beautiful woman in our Attention Economy Culture.
Smith was not just an inspiration to all things Kardashian. Look at TikTok and Facebook “Reels” and witness the explosion of attractive young women, in particular, doing anything and everything to get their faces out there and be “discovered,” just like Anna Nicole.
We’re no longer surpised this can happen, thanks to Anderson and Anna Nicole Smith. But it’s still possible to be bowled-over in revisiting the way Smith bombshelled her way into Playboy, and she and a Guess honcho changed her name and her billboards and magazine ads made her LA famous, then world famous, “adored by millions” but “loved by few,” her “life lived out in the tabloids.”
A close-friend-turned-lover from her stripping days talks about her “sweetness” and bisexuality.
An early lawyer of Smith’s turns herself into a pretzel, trying to describe Smith’s using and marrying aged, frail J. Howard Marshall as anything but predatory.
We see the day she met her biological father, having tracked him down and flown him and a stepbrother out to LA, greeting them with a limo, a trip to Disneyland and an evening at the Playboy mansion with — of course — a camera crew in tow.
Macfarlane doesn’t get as close to the litigious inner circle leeches clinging to Smith in her last years as you would like — a sister of the lawyer-turned-lover/advisor Howard K. Stern is here, and people who knew the tabloid photographer who fathered her second child are as close as the film gets to Larry Birkhead.
But we hear from the attorney whom the Marshall family hired to fight her in court, who let the delusional, egomaniacal and somewhat dim Smith dig herself into a hole no jury would let her out of.
And we learn about the diet drugs and pain meds she got addicted to that made her seem stoned most of the last decade of her life, even as she put on and lost weight and attempted a “comeback.”
It’s a sad story, of course, with overdoses and deaths and sort of classical American “price of fame” arc. But it’s also revealing, and only rarely judgemental — even handed, I thought.
No, “You Don’t Know Me” isn’t high art or even fair in the way it baits us into thinking “That title is right” only to pull us back towards “Maybe we knew her all along.”
In prepping this review, I noted that the NY Times published a critique that suggests Smith “deserves better than this.” Actually, a film that’s revealing, humanizing and an honest depiction of the course of her life, meeting some of the people she loved and who loved her, recalling the isolation and joys she experienced as well as the sordid and dishonest sides of her is exactly the sort of documentary biography Smith deserved.
Unfortunately, it’s only those who survive their deal with the Devil who get the Britney/Pamela “lived through it and this is who I really am now” treatment.
Rating: TV-MA, nudity, discussion of rape and sexual abuse, drugs
Cast: Anna Nicole Smith, Marilyn Grabowski, “Missy,” Donald Hogan, George Beall, Dr. Sandeep Kapoor, Marcus J. Fox
Credits: Directed by Ursula Macfarlane. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:57