Throughout her all-too-brief life, Anna Nicole Smith played a variety of roles on screen and off, identifying as someone different to everyone in her orbit. Even her name was part of a manufactured persona, carved from the same marble as Marilyn Monroe — an aspirational idol of hers. The buxom blonde bombshell represented the dynamic range a woman’s identity could span, from the saintly (wife, mother, girl next door) to the sinful (exotic dancer, calculating gold digger, tabloid-courting sensation). Born Vickie Lynn Hogan, she swapped her small-town woes for a ticket to stardom as a Playboy Playmate, Guess Jeans pinup girl and glamorous movie star: a walking, talking billboard for fashion, sex and, later, severe misfortune.
Director Ursula Macfarlane’s “Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me” taps into the notion that, whether we loved or despised her, the infamous celebrity from the ’90s and early aughts was putting on an act, playing into a self-created character she thought she could control — until an insatiable hunger for fame and fortune swamped her other ambitions. This Netflix documentary captures both her kindheartedness and her murkier complexities as it strives to determine why she hid her true identity from everyone, including herself. However, it ultimately leads to the frustrating conclusion that we’ll never know the real Anna Nicole, not least because, since her untimely passing in 2007, she’s no longer around to take back her autonomy. We’re given only an impression of the subject from those who knew her — or, at least, the chameleonic idea of her — and from the heightened, vivacious version of herself she chose to show on camera.
To glean insight into Smith’s psyche, Macfarlane takes a fairly traditional approach, portraying her foibles through a lens both compassionate and critical, puzzling together pieces of her life captured in personal and professional photos, as well as perfectly curated news and home video footage. The blueprint for Smith’s house of cards is drawn early on, illustrating an empowered, attention-seeking brunette-gone-platinum-blonde, following her dreams to become a household name. This journey took her out of an oppressive, lonely marriage (one she escaped by having a baby for company), leaving behind her given name and all the baggage that went with it. It led her into a world she ran on her own terms, as she reinvented herself two more times, first as “Nicky” and later as “Anna Nicole Smith.” Yet with the name changes came character-defining challenges. Some, such as career obsolescence, she was able to surmount; others, such as a prescription drug dependency, led to her psychological unravelling.
Talking-head-style interviews from Smith’s friends, family and business associates add context and clarity to milestones like her first Playboy shoot, where a record of Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” calmed her jittery nerves, and a Sapphic fling with her confidante “Missy” (who, somewhat ironically in a film about uncovering personae, doesn’t reveal her real name).
Overarching themes of identity and betrayal are tied to the litany of men in her life. Some had no agenda, like her beloved son Daniel (who comes to symbolize the death of her hopes and dreams), and her billionaire husband J. Marshall Howard (who genuinely loved her and vice versa). Others sought to exploit her, like the ruthless paparazzi, her pompadour-sporting biological father Donald, and slippery doctor Sandeep Kapoor. The film strives to build sympathy for Smith, but also insinuates that she used her beauty and naiveté as weapons — and two of the interviewees describe her as manipulative.
Though Macfarlane doesn’t strictly adhere to them, title cards demarcating time and place help to root in history the events that befell Smith, along with flashy graphics of the attention-grabbing headlines she inspired. Those who lived through the era where society’s scrutiny of Smith dominated the news will remember many of her sordid shenanigans without such prompts: Her inheritance trial for her marriage to Marshall seemed unending. We can still hear the echoes of her slurred speech presenting Kanye West — now going through a reevaluation of his own — with an American Music Award. A friend reveals that her staggering weight loss wasn’t just due to her contract with a diuretic (“TrimSpa, baby!”), but also because of an eating disorder. Viewed in hindsight, these anecdotes conjure empathy and foreboding. Smith’s first attempt to shun the spotlight, hiding out in a new friend’s Malibu bungalow, resonates as an unanswered cry for help.
However, it seems pointless to rehash all these familiar events with little new information. The film tries to have it both ways, criticizing the media’s lurid fascination with Smith’s loud life while celebrating it at the same time. This contradictory depiction leaves the icon as enigmatic as ever, making it unlikely that it will bring comfort or closure to the people who loved her. Smith’s daughter is now 16, and probably won’t find any answers about her mother here.
Despite its efforts to present a well-rounded portrait of this determined starlet, the film ultimately feels like a glossier, slightly less salacious iteration of an “E! True Hollywood Story,” appealing primarily to those who relish tragic tales of the rich and famous. Although it offers a subtly stinging condemnation of celebrity voyeurism, it’s not enough to make that gut-punch land with force, and even seems guilty of the very same thing.
Unlike “Pamela, A Love Story,” which showed Smith’s fellow Playmate Pamela Anderson taking command of her own narrative and baring her truth to the world, Macfarlane’s doc is tainted by the lies Smith cleverly crafted to psychologically guard herself against past and future trauma — which rained down regardless. Perhaps the truth is that she was a complicated woman with many self-created problems. But with its few late-developing revelations relegated to the final minutes, it’s almost as if we can hear Anna’s voice saying the documentary’s subtitle — as a taunt, not an invitation to get to know her in any meaningful way.