In recent years, there has been a growing trend of re-examining the tabloid culture of the early 2000s and its treatment of celebrity women. Projects have emerged that aim to shed light on the experiences of these women who were objectified, misrepresented, and subjected to misogyny during their heydays. This re-evaluation has resulted in multiple documentaries and memoirs that seek to provide a more nuanced perspective and empower the subjects of these stories. However, the new Netflix documentary “Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me,” directed by Ursula Macfarlane, unfortunately falls short of achieving these goals and fails to redefine the narrative surrounding the late model and media personality.
Anna Nicole Smith, who tragically passed away at the age of 39 from an accidental drug overdose in 2007, lived a life filled with various roles and controversies. She was a sought-after model for Playboy and Guess, an actress, a sex symbol, and an early prototype of the modern “famous-for-being-famous” celebrity. Emerging during the era of intense tabloid coverage, Smith’s small-town Texas background and striking looks made her an ideal target for sensationalist media. Her personal life was a constant source of fascination, including her relationship with an elderly billionaire that led to an inheritance lawsuit, as well as a highly publicized paternity case involving multiple potential fathers for her daughter.
The documentary delves into Smith’s omnipresence in the press, showcasing a series of familiar clips that capture the essence of her turbulent life. From glamorous photo shoots to chaotic paparazzi footage and the spectacle surrounding her untimely death, the opening montage sets the tone for the film’s attempt to reveal the real Anna Nicole Smith. However, instead of offering a fresh perspective, the documentary becomes fixated on the lurid aspects of her life, perpetuating the sensationalism that plagued her during her time in the public eye.
Macfarlane takes the audience on a journey through Smith’s past, starting with her early childhood in Mexia, Texas. The film follows her evolution from Vickie Lynn Hogan, an attention-seeking young girl working in Houston’s topless clubs, to Anna Nicole Smith, the model who achieved international fame as Playboy’s 1993 Playmate of the Year. This title catapulted Smith into a world of extreme celebrity, where she capitalized on her fame and notoriety, particularly through her marriage to billionaire oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall. She was one of the earliest reality TV stars and influencers, paving the way for the likes of the Kardashians with her show “The Anna Nicole Smith Show” and her endorsement of TrimSpa. However, throughout the narrative of her rise to stardom, the documentary remains fixated on Smith’s scandals, mirroring the media’s obsession rather than humanizing her.
The film incorporates never-before-seen footage, including home videos featuring Smith and her late son, Daniel, who tragically died of a drug overdose at the age of 20, just months before his mother’s passing. Interviews with individuals close to Smith, such as her brother, half-brother, and a friend referred to as Missy, are also included. However, these elements fail to add depth or complexity to Smith’s story and instead contribute to the sensationalism that surrounded her.
One revelation in the documentary involves Smith’s allegation that her biological father, whom she did not meet until adulthood, attempted to have sexual relations with her. The half-brother’s response to this revelation lacks a genuine sense of gravity, making it feel more like a clickbait headline than a sobering revelation. Missy, in her interview, claims to have had a romantic relationship with Smith and suggests that Smith fabricated stories of her abusive upbringing for media attention. However, these revelations are presented without the necessary care or resolution.
Even the most intimate footage of Smith fails to challenge existing perceptions of who she was. An impatient phone call where Smith berates Marshall for waking her up is shared without context, providing only vulgar emotions. Her infamous speech at the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards, widely interpreted as an indication of her being under the influence, is reframed by her former bodyguard as a calculated performance aimed at garnering media attention. However, this argument does not delve into Smith’s motivations beyond her desire for the spotlight, ultimately reducing her to being fame-driven and selfish.
While acknowledging Smith’s shortcomings is important, the documentary’s excessive focus on the sensational and scandalous aspects of her life only reinforces preconceived notions and stereotypes. It fails to present a comprehensive and empathetic exploration of Smith’s humanity. Smith was not just a beautiful and flawed individual; she was a complex person with her own struggles and aspirations. Regrettably, “Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me” falls into the trap of being a voyeuristic cautionary tale rather than a thoughtful examination of a remarkable woman’s life. It does not provide the nuanced understanding and empowerment that other projects have achieved in re-examining the lives of celebrity women from that era.