Content Warning: Mentions of sexual assault and eating disorders.
Netflix’s newest narrative pursuit looks to get to the nitty-gritty of the life story behind one of the most famous women in 90s-to-early-2000s Hollywood in “Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me.” Part cinematic, part dramatic and partly journalistic, this documentary on the late Marilyn Monroe-esque model, actress and reality television persona reveals the suffering of Anna Nicole Smith. While the documentary feels like it wants to vindicate her image, it doesn’t do much to critique the sensationalist nature of Hollywood storytelling that often leads to psychological stress and damage on to-be starlets. Hollywood loves a tragedy, and Smith might be one of the finest in the genre.
The documentary has some strong points: the opening story of Smith’s early beginnings as a young woman wanting more out of life while being stuck living in the Bible Belt of rural Texas. The actress grew up in a broken poor family, not unlike many Americans, getting married young to her first love and having a baby to avoid her own loneliness. The film does not overly dramatize this sequence and instead creates a familiar atmosphere of trashy Americana aesthetics. This part of the documentary is often looked at with complex feelings of nostalgia, romanticization and even contempt as it represents a certain kind of experience that might not receive much empathy in today’s discourse surrounding this country’s issues of class struggle. Nevertheless, the documentary does an excellent job at building Anna Nicole Smith as a person before her controversial fame, showing how her magnetic character and bright aura were more influential to her popularity and dreamlike luck than the perceived “gold-digging” ambitions she is often characterized with.
The film also surprisingly respects a feminist, sex-positive framework in its exploration of Smith’s celebration of her femininity, which is often looked down upon as the blueprint for the “bimbo” stereotype that plagued voluptuous blonde-haired women in media in the late 90s-to-early-2000s. Like Maxine in “Pearl,” Smith always knew she was meant to be a star. Her early pursuits in performance included becoming a small-town strip club dancer, which was the catalyst for her infamous relationship with the wealthy J. Howard Marshall. She was able to hone in on her sensual prowess through her experience as a sex worker, eventually feeling compelled to alter her body with breast implants — which perhaps is the moment her body started becoming a burden to carry. The rest of her short life was plagued by other people’s obsession with the size and shape of her figure, leading her to abuse “diet pills” to please the hungry gaze of paparazzi and viewers alike.
The film becomes as ravenous as the tabloids for Smith’s vulnerability in its weaker moments. Though images were made public in Playboy Magazine, the film unnecessarily displays Smith’s nudity as a spectacle to marvel at in a film meant to focus on uncovering her humanity and personhood over the sensationalization of her sexual allure. It also fails to critique the ways how the media felt entitled to her body and private sexual life because of her early work in modeling for Playboy. Interviewers picked at her body or questioned whether or not she had a sexual relationship with J. Howard Marshall — things Smith felt uncomfortable making central to her image because she truly wanted to work on her career as an actress and most importantly, provide a safe and happy life for her children.
Perhaps the saddest part of the documentary was the lack of care given to the traumatic events of Smith’s life in the limelight, like when she was innocently excited to be reunited with her biological father only to be faced with a potential sexual assault by him that was communicated through disbelief, which can’t be investigated further because she isn’t here to defend the story today. Or, her messy trial after Marshall’s death, where she was perceived to have lost favor with the jury “because of who she was as a person,” which is pure misogyny.
Overall, posthumously released documentaries have a difficult job to take on, especially when centered around women like Anna Nicole Smith. The runtime is a little too long for a story that’s already been told, and it would probably be more entertaining to watch actual reality television rather than a documentary about it.
Verdict: For fans of early reality television media personalities, I would not put it at the top of your watch list if you are not looking for a recap of Smith’s life. And if you are not old enough to remember watching her 2004 MTV Video Music Award speech, skip the watch as well.