Anna Nicole is a cheap, trashy, melodramatic Lifetime original movie that's at times so absurd you can't help but laugh—which perfectly evinces the campy essence of Anna Nicole Smith. Telling the late model's story through tone is genius and director Mary Harron is on to some next-level biopic shit.
What sets really great camp cinema apart from all the other schlock is, as Rich Juzwiak puts it, the "ambiguity of intention." Did Harron mean to make some scenes so nonsensical? (For instance, when Smith is shown barreling down a highway doing lines of cocaine off the dashboard of her convertible—with the top down.) Was having Smith strip to the kind of music you'd hear in a gay club (diva house) instead of the kind you hear in an actual strip club (Buckcherry, Candlebox, etc.) a deliberate choice? Was Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau (who plays Smith's much older, billionaire husband, J. Howard Marshall) aware of how slow-motion wheelchair dancing would translate on the small screen? Did they purposely film Daniel's funeral scene in autumn in Canada so that it looked nothing like the Bahamas? Did Smith actually refer to her stepson and adversary E. Pierce Marshall as "E. Pierce" or was that just a wink at the audience, because that's always how we see his name in news stories? Either way, it's fun to think about!
It's these kind of touches that make Anna Nicole perfect Lifetime programming. It's straightforward enough to appeal to middle America while also getting that double read from a gay audience and/or those who appreciate camp and the subversive.
But while the tone is spot on, Anna Nicole is rife with factual and chronological inaccuracies. I've read four unauthorized biographies of Smith's life, watched every episode of her E! reality show, along with every weight-loss special or unflattering documentary the channel ever aired, and created my own personal DVD catalog of Smith's Entertainment Tonight and The Insider appearances. I accept that I probably know way more useless information about the woman than the average viewer, but little things still bugged me. Like how we were supposed to believe that she came up with the stage name "Anna Nicole Smith" as a little girl. It was actually Guess? co-founder Paul Marciano who renamed her. Or how her earlier ODs and rehab stints were distilled down to one incident. Or how Bruckner simply isn't the radiant beauty that Smith was.
More importantly, though entire key figures in Smith's life story were totally left out, like her cousin Shelly, her assistant Kimmie, and her sort of onetime boyfriend G. Ben Thompson, who she conned into purchasing her a home in the Bahamas so she could set up residency and evade Larry Birkhead, the father of her child. (G. Ben Thompson's granddaughter is the little girl with Smith in the infamous clown video which was recreated for the biopic with chilling accuracy.)
In a recent Vice interview Harron actually addressed why she had to leave out cousin Shelly and Kimmie:
"I love those characters. If we had done something that just focused on the years of the reality show—which I have to say would make a great film—they would definitely have been included. But there just wasn't time in this version."
What Harron says about isolating a portion of Smith's life for a film is probably the only way that it could be told with any kind of precision or emotional resonance. (And you could have your pick because her whole life was basically a series of different Lifetime movies: her father was a rapist; her first husband beat her; she had a May/December romance; she was embroiled in a legal battle that eventually went before the Supreme Court; she was an addict; she had yo-yoing weight issues; the list goes on.) Anna Nicole made a half-assed attempt to show the depth of the bond between Smith and her son Daniel, but it never really works, so when he actually dies in the film, it fails to connect the audience to the extreme grief that eventually went on to kill her five months later.
But again, that Anna Nicole couldn't get Smith's life right is fitting, because she couldn't get it right either. Similarly, there was something about Smith's mediocrity—meaning her lack of any particular talent, her garish taste, and being uneducated—that made her kind of vulnerable. Weirdly, it layered her. The same could be said for the film. It does a really bad job at humanizing her—so bad it's good.
By creating such a miss, Harron hit the nail on the head.
Anna Nicole premieres on Lifetime on Saturday, June 29.