Netflix’s Anna Nicole Smith Doc Casts Her As a Cunning Fame Seeker
Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me telegraphs its intentions loud and early. The documentary’s subject, the buxom blonde Guess and Playboy model who became a cultural caricature before dying from an accidental drug overdose in 2007 at age 39, was misunderstood. The forces that created her also destroyed her. Shame on us. You could program You Don’t Know Me in a double feature with Pamela: A Love Story, another recent Netflix documentary about a sex symbol laid low by the public that made her famous.
You Don’t Know Me largely adheres to its playbook. But it also does something more interesting. This Anna Nicole Smith isn’t just some innocent victim. She’s also a calculating architect of her own life and public image. She grew up with modest means in Houston and its small-town outskirts, and was obsessed with following in Marilyn Monroe’s footsteps; a Playboy photo editor recalls that Smith, born Vickie Lynn Hogan, loosened up at her first shoot for the magazine only after putting on a vinyl recording of Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
“She really felt like she might have been Marilyn’s reincarnated daughter,” says a friend, though her vibe and image were more Jayne Mansfield.
Smith’s late, much-maligned mother, Virgie, recalls asking her daughter why she told so many horror stories about what Mom insists wasn’t a bad childhood. According to Virgie, Anna Nicole explained that the sad stories make a lot more money than the happy ones.
You Don’t Know Me, directed by Ursula Macfarlane (who made the 2019 Harvey Weinstein exposé Untouchable), doesn’t quite know what to do with this tension, saving much of its complexity for the waning moments rather than giving its heroine’s story deeper shading from the start. But it remains a visually engaging portrait that depicts Smith as more than just a little girl lost. The film argues that, despite a powerful self-destructive streak and a crippling pain-pill habit that began in the wake of Smith’s initial breast implant procedure, she often knew exactly what she was doing. And what she was doing, until it all fell apart anyway, was becoming rich and famous.
Her career began In a Houston strip club, where, as a former friend, colleague and lover who goes only by “Missy” says, Smith showed an immediate knack for getting men to do what she wanted. Missy, who claims to have been Smith’s first female lover, also argues that Smith adopted much of her own family background — sexual abuse, abject poverty — and made it her own. There’s a Patricia Highsmith element to this version of events — The Talented Ms. Smith. The strip club is also where Smith met J. Howard Marshall, an elderly billionaire whose story, and riches, remained a part of Smith’s saga until after her death. Archival footage, which the film uses deftly and liberally, suggests the couple actually loved each other, and Smith always argued she didn’t marry Marshall until she had her own career. But Smith also fought hard for a share of the dough once he died in 1995, and Smith never really did outrun the gold digger tag.
The last years of Smith’s life gave way to a tabloid-ready thicket of addiction, paternity disputes, finger-pointing, court cases, weight problems, affairs, and financial battles. You Don’t Know Me necessarily truncates this material, boiling down never-ending drama and crises to the essentials and handing the microphone over to the most compelling voices. One of these belongs to Maurice Brighthaupt, Smith’s bodyguard, whose interest in his client was more fraternal than sexual. He called her “Baby Girl”; she called him “Mo-Mo.” You can hear the pain and affection in his voice as he recalls her many struggles.
Smith could have used a few more Mo-Mo’s in her life — people who saw her more as a person and less as a meal ticket or projection of their own desires. But this is an age-old tale. Theodore Dreiser could have written the Anna Nicole Smith story: an ambitious girl, desperate to start anew and hungry for fortune and adventure, sets out to make a name. She becomes a sensation, but the world exacts its price and eats her alive — but not before she takes a big bite of her own. In the end her relationship with the world proves too toxic. Fade to black.
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