“The phrase ‘Rest in Peace’ sadly means absolutely nothing when it comes to Anna Nicole Smith.” That’s what a news anchor says in a clip from not long after Anna Nicole Smith’s death from an overdose at the age of 39. Anna Nicole Smith: You don’t know me doesn’t make it clear which of the many rumors and legal battles the reporter is commenting on, the existence of this documentary seems to prove its point.
Sixteen years after her passing, we still can’t look away from this model who has become the 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 photo shoot was revived for a 2021 ad campaign (using the rather creepy tagline “Did you miss me?”). Not all attention is nefarious. For his part, You do not know me aims to cut past the mythology to reveal the flesh-and-blood woman beneath, composing a mostly sympathetic, mostly compelling portrait of an all-American tragedy. But if even a movie intended to capture the “real” Anna Nicole Smith isn’t sure who that might be, it’s hard not to wonder who this is actually for.
Anna Nicole Smith: You don’t know me
It comes down to
We still don’t really know her, and probably never will.
The answer probably has at least something to do with the recent trend of shows and movies rethinking the way our culture treated famous women in the ’90s and ’00s. Some, like Brooke Shields, may speak for themselves; others, like Britney Spears, have made projects about them, whether they count or not; still others, like Pamela Anderson, are in both camps. Smith cannot speak for herself in the present, and so others speak for her. You do not know meThe interviewees are people who knew Smith relatively well in life – family, friends and staff, as well as a paparazzo who covered for her, the doctor accused (and later acquitted) of supplying drugs, the lawyer who fought her on behalf of her family of deceased husband.
Director Ursula Macfarlane (Untouchable) draws a mostly straight line through Smith’s life story, the main points of which will be familiar to those who remember her from her heyday. There is the rise of small town Texan to Playboy cover model, the marriage to an elderly billionaire and the subsequent legal battle over his estate, the more or less comeback via TrimSpa sponsorship and reality series. Finally, there’s the devastating ending: the birth of her long-awaited daughter Dannielynn, the death of her 20-year-old son Daniel the day after, the death of Smith himself several months later.
The series spends more time during these trials on the subjective experiences of Smith and her inner circle than on providing historical context or cultural analysis – perhaps reasonably assuming it’s recent enough that most viewers won’t need a refresher course. What it does show the tenor of the conversation about her is effective enough. In an ugly clip, the radio host Howard Stern speculates about her drug use and weight gain and jokes that Daniel is being abused. When Daniel drops by some time later, a friend recalls that cameras were hung above the walls of Smith’s house “to watch her devastation,” treating a mother’s raw grief as so much nastier gossip to move tabloids.
A lot of You do not know me‘s most enchanting material is not new at all. Even over the decades, old clips and photos of Smith make it crystal clear that she was blessed with that ineffable charm that separates real stars from just beautiful ones. In behind-the-scenes footage (some previously released, some not), she comes across 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 could envision her life as a product to be molded for consumption. “It made perfect sense that this was the ultimate storyline,” says a friend of Anna’s decision to have a second child, as if it were just a storyline.
Yet You do not know me asks us to take their word for it this time, anyone who speaks of what Smith really felt, really thought, really was, is speaking the truth – even though some admit that she seemed to have few real friends towards the end of her life, and even if common sense suggests that an ex might disinclined to be overly generous in their recollections, or that a family member has difficulty believing the worst about another. Macfarlane has said in interviews that she vetted the interviewees, but the work to corroborate their stories is left out of the film itself. This gets especially tricky amid the new details the documentary offers about Smith’s romantic relationship with a fellow stripper and her feud with her biological father — and, most controversially, over claims that Smith’s account of her own backstory may not completely correct. accurate.
Other times, the series shows a short-sightedness that seems to be the product of naivety, limited running time, or both. “There are things that come with it (with fame) that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” says a tabloid journalist earnestly. When he realizes that he himself was part of the machine that made fame so unbearable for the likes of Smith – or if You do not know me has reservations about summarizing Smith’s darkest chapters all this time later – we don’t see it.
Maybe You do not know me assumes the mere fact that it comes at Smith from a mostly sympathetic angle, as opposed to the ridicule she received in life, is reason enough to bring it up again. Maybe it will be for many people; I was certainly fascinated by Smith, felt for her hardships, and wondered what kind of career she could have had in a more empathetic world. Yet I also couldn’t shake the feeling that, given the amount of attention Smith received in life, she might have earned the right to escape it in death.