I realised with some sobering surprise at the weekend that the eighth anniversary of Playboy and Guess jeans model Anna Nicole Smith's death had occurred the previous week (see my blog post here)
Eight years already?
Being a teenager in the 1990s, Anna Nicole Smith will always have a special place in my heart. Back then it seemed like the battle of the boobs; you were either a Pamela Anderson fan or you were devoted to Anna Nicole. On the whole I fell into the latter category, preferring her old style Hollywood glamour that seemed to hark back to the likes of Jayne Mansfield and, her own idol of course, Marilyn Monroe.
In a way it was cruelly fitting that like those two voluptuous starlets, Anna Nicole's life was equally as doomed to ridicule, controversy, exploitation and ultimately great tragedy.
There's a great story to be told of the life of Anna Nicole Smith, but unfortunately this Lifetime TV movie biopic, entitled simply Anna Nicole, isn't it. Mary Harron is an efficient director and she shows it on occasion here, but its staggering to see how she has gone from American Psycho to this cheap entertainment. Subject wise and thematically, this follows in the footsteps of her HBO movie The Notorious Bettie Page but doesn't deliver on that (admittedly only C+) film's level. The main problem is the unmistakable trappings of the made for TV biopic; there's some truly atrocious dialogue on offer from writers Joe Batteer and John Rice who insist on having character's drop lines like lead weights to signpost their role or intention ("Anna Nicole, you are every man's fantasy. I want you to be the face of Guess Jeans" says CEO Paul Marciano whilst in another scene Anna receives a phone call that starts with "This is your agent" just so we know why the man on the phone in the big office will go on to discuss her career!) Also, does every Lifetime movie tell its character's story with them recounting their life from beyond the grave? It doesn't make it Sunset Boulevard you know?! That device, along with them seeing visions of their future or former self at key stages of the narrative, just makes it tacky and tawdry, as if Anna Nicole Smith's life needed to be depicted any more tackier than it unfortunately was! Equally, the film rushes blindly through so many key moments of her life that it becomes something of a rollercoaster - and not in a good way.
Actress Agnes Bruckner has the unenviable task of bringing the larger than life model back to life, but bluntly, she isn't large enough. Even at her most glamourous, Anna Nicole Smith was a delightfully rounded young woman and there's just no way Bruckner is broad enough in the beam to portray her. They do pad her up in scenes depicting and recreating the disastrous reality show of her life (to go along with the impressive prosthetic breasts they have given her) but it's somewhat too little too late. Nevertheless she portrays her with enough empathy and heart and manages to nail some of the beguiling allure and goofiness that was so inherent in Anna Nicole. Her relationship with her son Daniel is also nicely captured and Bruckner plays these moments very well.
Veteran actor Martin Landau plays her aged sugar daddy J Howard Marshall and this is a very sensitive depiction which shows a man truly in love with her, regardless. Unfortunately the film doesn't dwell at all on their two year courtship courtship, preferring to show their meeting at the strip club where Anna worked before going straight into a scene, some time later, showing Marshall giving her his ranch.
The film also explores her relationship with the other Howard in her life, her lawyer and companion Howard K Stern (played by Adam Goldberg) but carefully avoids picking a side in the continuing debate as to whether this man provided well intentioned support in the model's later years or whether he was in fact her primary enabler as anyone who has viewed the now infamous clown make up video footage may shudder to recall. The film also avoids relating the commitment ceremony Anne Nicole made with Howard just seven days after her son's death from an overdose, preferring instead to rush head long from his tragic demise to her own in similar circumstances five months later leaving behind her baby daughter and no, the subsequent paternity drama isn't dwelt upon here either.
Ultimately, the issue with Harron's biopic is that it prefers to linger on the basic facts of Anna Nicole's life but refuses to dip its toe into the far murkier waters of the psychology, on what caused her personal demons and insecurities or just why she felt the need to use drugs an alcohol as such a devastating crutch throughout her all too brief life. A lack of substance makes this a missed opportunity and once again the real appreciation and understanding that Anna Nicole strove for and ultimately deserved in life remains just as elusive in death.