‘Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me’ Review: Netflix Doc About The Late Model Is Absorbing, But Is It Necessary?
“The phrase ‘Rest in Peace’ means absolutely nothing, unfortunately, when it comes to Anna Nicole Smith.” So says a news anchor in a clip from not long after Anna Nicole Smith’s death by overdose at 39. And though Netflix’s Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me does not make clear which of the many rumors and legal battles the reporter might be commenting on, the existence of this very documentary would seem to prove her point.
Sixteen years after her passing, we still cannot look away from this model turned punchline. Her life and death have been the subject of an opera and a TV movie, with a feature film reportedly on the way. Her iconic Guess photoshoot was resurrected for a 2021 ad campaign (with the rather creepy slogan “Did you miss me?”). Not all the attention is nefarious. For its part, You Don’t Know Me aims to cut past the mythology to reveal the flesh-and-blood woman underneath, and in doing so assembles a mostly sympathetic, mostly compelling portrait of an all-American tragedy. But when even a movie aimed at capturing the “true” Anna Nicole Smith seems unsure exactly who that might be, it’s hard not to wonder who any of this is really for.
Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me
The Bottom Line
We still don’t really know her, and probably never will.
Probably, the answer has at least a little something to do with the recent trend of shows and movies reconsidering our culture’s treatment of famous women throughout the ’90s and ’00s. Some, like Brooke Shields, get to speak for themselves; others, like Britney Spears, have projects made about them whether they weigh in or not; still others, like Pamela Anderson, find themselves in both camps. Smith cannot speak for herself in the present, and so others speak for her. You Don’t Know Me‘s interviewees are people who knew Smith relatively well in life — family, friends and staff, but also a paparazzo who covered her, the doctor charged (and later acquitted) of supplying her with drugs, the lawyer who battled her on her behalf. late husband’s family.
Director Ursula Macfarlane (Untouchable) traces a mostly straight line through Smith’s life story, the major bullet points of which will be familiar to those who remember her from her heyday. There’s the rise from small-town Texan to Playboy cover model, the marriage to an older billionaire and the subsequent legal battle over his estate, the sorta-comeback via TrimSpa sponsorship and reality series. Finally, there’s the devastating end: the birth of her longed-for daughter Dannielynn, the death of her 20-year-old son Daniel the day after, the death of Smith herself several months later.
The series spends more time on the subjective experiences of Smith and her inner circle throughout these ordeals than it does on providing historical context or cultural analysis — perhaps assuming, reasonably, that it’s recent enough that most viewers won’t need a refresher. What it does show of the tenor of the conversation about her is effective enough. In one ugly clip, the radio host Howard Stern speculates about her drug use and weight gain and half-jokes that Daniel is being abused. When Daniel passes some time later, a friend recalls cameras sticking up over the walls of Smith’s home “to see her devastation,” treating the raw grief of a mother as so much more sordid gossip to move tabloids.
A lot of You Don’t Know Me‘s most mesmerizing material isn’t really new at all. Even from the distance of decades, old clips and photos of Smith make it crystal clear that she was blessed with that ineffable charm that separates true stars from the merely beautiful. In behind-the-scenes footage (some previously released, some not), she comes off as warm and funny, though her inner life remains forever out of reach. It’s also interesting to see how clearly Smith and those around her were able to imagine her life as a product to be molded for consumption. “It made perfect sense for that to be the ultimate storyline,” a friend says of Anna’s decision to have a second child, as if it were merely a storyline at all.
Yet You Don’t Know Me asks us to take at their word that this time, everyone speaking about what Smith really felt, really thought, was really like, is telling the truth — even as several acknowledge she seemed to have few true friends by the end of her life, and even as common sense suggests that an ex might not be inclined to be overly generous in their recollections, or that one family member might struggle to believe the worst of another. Macfarlane has said in interviews that she vetted the interview subjects, but the work of confirming their stories is left out of the film itself. This becomes especially troublesome amid the fresh details that the documentary has to offer about Smith’s romantic relationship with a fellow stripper and her falling out with her biological father — and, most controversially, about claims that Smith’s accounting of her own backstory may not have been entirely accurate
Other times, the series demonstrates a short-sightedness that appears to be the product of naivete, a limited run time, or both. “There is stuff that comes along [with fame] which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” a tabloid journalist gravely intones. If he realizes he himself was part of the machine that made fame so unbearable for people like Smith — or if You Don’t Know Me has any reservations about recapping Smith’s darkest chapters all this time later — we don’t see it.
Perhaps You Don’t Know Me assumes the mere fact that it’s coming at Smith from a mostly sympathetic angle, in contrast to the derision she received in life, is reason enough to bring it back up. Perhaps for many people it will be; I certainly found myself captivated by Smith, feeling for her hardships, wondering what kind of career she could have had in a more empathetic world. Yet I also could not shake the feeling that, given how much attention Smith was subjected to in life, she might have earned the right to escape it in death.
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