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Anna Nicole Smith Netflix.jpg

‘Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me’ Rehashes History to Malign its Subject

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | May 18, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | May 18, 2023 |

Anna Nicole Smith Netflix.jpg

Pop culture has taken an interesting and somewhat revealing turn in recent years when it comes to examining the lives of so-called ‘difficult women.’ We’ve seen how some of the most maligned figures in politics and entertainment over the past several decades have gotten their dues in documentaries and dramatizations that have now become prestige titles and awards bait. From Marcia Clark and Monica Lewinsky to Tammy Faye Bakker and Paris Hilton, there’s been a striking glut of such content, all working towards a similar objective through various means. Sometimes, these films and series are nuanced and fill in crucial holes left empty by history. Many ended up smudging over pricklier details to over-correct those mistakes and overlook the problems. Other times, they feel like the past repeating itself.

So, it felt inevitable that one day we’d see this treatment directed towards Anna Nicole Smith. The model, reality TV star, and tabloid magnet cannot help but be viewed as one of the most unbearably sad figures in modern celebrity. The small town Texas girl who married an old rich man, became a sex symbol compared to Marilyn Monroe, then fell from grace as the press treated her as a punching bag. She died at the age of 39, leaving behind a baby girl. I remember her death and the frenzy it inspired. So much pity yet little true understanding. The new Netflix documentary Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me hopes to provide audiences with that.

The film attempts to separate the megastar Anna Nicole Smith from Vickie Lynn Hogan (her birth name), the naive Texas girl with a young child who wanted something better from life. As her family notes, the young Smith always sought attention, even from childhood, and her hometown of Mexia wasn’t going to provide it. After a brief marriage, she packed up her things and began working at a strip club. A billionaire octogenarian offers her everything, but she wants more: fame, fortune, and a new name for herself. Her story really does feel like an old-school Hollywood story, one that many compared to that of Marilyn Monroe. It’s a comparison she often sought out, but one with a heavy weight attached.

Any film about Anna Nicole must inevitably deal with the economics of fame in the ’90s. This is a time when being on the cover of Playboy could turn you into an A-List megastar, an era of tabloid domination pre-internet and high price chases for paparazzi shots. One former photographer reveals how clips of Smith could sell for $5-7,500 because she was so animated. We also see Smith making business decisions about films to star in and ultimately choosing the one that pays more. There’s an obvious savviness here, a real businesswoman at work with a single-minded focus on fulfilling all of her dreams. The aim of You Don’t Know Me seems to be to offer another side to the ‘bimbo’ persona, one that haunted Smith for decades.

The most revealing moments in the film come from Melissa ‘Missy’ Byrum, Smith’s former friend and apparent lover. Byrum offers insight into some of the most talked-about details of Smith’s life as well as those unseen moments. This includes her marriage to J. Howard Marshall II, the billionaire oil tycoon who begged her to marry him, and her descent into prescription pill addiction. Byrum seems to be one of the few figures in the film who wholly cared about Smith, although even that comes with caveats thanks to the documentary’s tasteless framing, which we’ll get to later.

Filmmakers directing documentaries for Netflix must receive some sort of style guide because You Don’t Know Me hits so many of the platform’s well-worn aesthetic beats: the glossy cinematography complete with slow-motion recreations; the talking heads framed front and centre like every Errol Morris film; the music that wouldn’t sound out of place in a psychological thriller. In one scene, where we’re told about Smith getting her first boob job, we’re shown stills of a breast augmentation operation, complete with flappy open skin and the implant. Is the point of this to show the pain Smith put herself through to achieve perfection? It just feels like yet another excuse to leer at someone who was gawked at from birth.

For most of the film, you’re getting a solid, if not especially revealing, insight into a woman who deserved better. It’s a reminder of the stark cruelty of the press and how little has truly changed, and how every speck of progress is likely to be overshadowed by the financial benefits of misogyny. Smith’s downfall is tough to watch, a repeat of a past we’d all rather pretend we didn’t participate in. If it had ended there then we’d have a decent movie. But You Don’t Know Me decides to give us a twist in its final ten minutes, one that feels designed to deliberately throw its subject under the bus.

In its conclusion, Byrum reveals that some of Smith’s purported origin story, including physical and sexual abuse, was either exaggerated or made-up, stolen from Byrum’s own life. We’re told that Smith had a solid relationship with her mother, who she repeatedly described as a tyrant to the press when discussing her tragic childhood. Why is this positioned as a shocking twist, placed right before the credits roll, as if to tell the viewer that we were never supposed to trust, like, or sympathise with Anna Nicole Smith? Surely, these details should have been placed at the beginning, in a film told in a typically chronological manner? If the goal is to paint a three-dimensional portrait of a woman we don’t truly know then what is the purpose of this narrative run-around? It seems like a way for the film to have its cake and eat it, to condemn the media tactics that hurt her while engaging in them as a shaming tactic.

The comparisons to Monroe were certainly plentiful, and while watching You Don’t Know Me, I couldn’t help but think about Blonde, a film about which I have many complex feelings. Monroe was a woman who also had an impenetrable backstory that she and the studios chopped and changed to fit their required narratives. She’s long been plagued with the questionable psychological profile of being two different women, Norma Jean and Marilyn, forever entwined by wildly different. Now, Smith has received the ultimate Monroe parallel: to be reduced to a series of lessons to be learned in the shape of a sex toy by the same people who claim to want to get beyond the surface. The intense sadness of Anna Nicole Smith becomes yet another way for true crime-adjacent content to leer at the dead and pretend they’re doing them a service. It seems as though too many storytellers don’t know how to handle the lives of women who did not live in a binary of good versus bad. By the end of Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me, we really don’t know her. We just feel a lot sadder about how she’s treated, even now.

Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me is available to watch now on Netflix.