About forty-five minutes into Netflix’s Anna Nicole Smith documentary, I had the urge to throw my laptop away and break some things in rage. Normally, I do not let things on screen get to me, no matter how emotionally draining they are, especially when I am watching them for work. Sometimes, though, things have a way of getting out of hand. Anna Nicole Smith found her way back to her biological father when she was twenty-four. She was over the moon. The father tried to have sex with her.
Documentary filmmaking is a risky business. The director has to bear the responsibility of doing justice to the real events. But it also has to be engaging enough for the audience to hold on to their seats till the very end. You might disagree, but I don’t think it would be wrong of me to say that over the past decade, Netflix has revolutionized the documentary genre by picking up stories known to millions as well as stories known to none. Their approach of giving these stories a certain cinematic makeover— with infusion of music, stylized editing, eye-catching cinematography without compromising on the realistic aspect has mostly worked.
An Anna Nicole Smith documentary from the stables of Netflix would have been a safe bet. But I was kind of apprehensive after doing my initial research on the fallen starlet. I thought by trying to sensationalize it like they usually do, Netflix might falter here. But I was glad to see that for this one, Netflix made the right choice by presenting what happened as it was. The end result is not exactly exciting, as there are not many moments of glory. But this is not a story of glory either; rather, it is a story of an individual fading away into the oblivion of darkness.
What I found particularly ironic was how familiar Anna Nicole’s origin story feels. There have been millions of songs and movies about this: a small-town girl making it big in the world of showbiz. Ursula Macfarlane’s documentary follows the events of Anna’s life mostly in a chronological order. So, we get to see where she comes from early on. In the mostly dead town of Mexica, Texas, life is as dead as you can imagine, especially for someone like Vicky Lynn. Yes, that is her birth name, which you can find with a regular Google search. All Vicky wants is to get out of the ghost town, and the first step she takes is dropping out of high school in her sophomore year and taking a job at a local fried chicken place. What follows is a whirlwind romance with cook Billy Wayne Smith, which leads to an eventual marriage that doesn’t last long and the birth of Anna’s son, Daniel.
Among all the people Macfarlane relied on to tell Anna’s story in the documentary, Missy Byrum was the most essential one. Anna first meets her at a Houston strip club, where Missy also used to work. The two become inseparable, and Missy follows Anna wherever she goes for years until she finally quits seeing Anna as a train wreck she can save. The documentary doesn’t give you an iota of doubt regarding Missy’s love for Anna, whom she used to call Nicky. Missy and Anna’s relationship went far beyond a regular friendship, as Missy recalls how easy it was for her to get intimate with Anna while telling so many other stories. Anna does find the “love of her life” with billionaire oil tycoon Howard Marshall. Despite their huge age gap, their love for each other was genuine enough for Marshall to splash his wealth on his queen. Like most things in her life, things end up sour for Anna here as well, with Howard’s son Pierce eventually intervening, taking the wheel away from his father, and legally proving Anna’s claim for Howard’s wealth invalid.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the documentary is that while it sympathizes with Anna’s tragedy, it also doesn’t shy away from pointing out her wrongs, like how she would treat Howard like an ATM at an extremely low point of her life or treat Missy so terribly that she would eventually leave. But the documentary was sensible enough to never put any blame on Anna. Another highlight would be bringing in different perspectives and analogies for different incidents related to Anna’s life. For example, we get a bit of information about Pierce’s lawyer, who was the most instrumental figure in dismissing Anna’s claim to Howard’s wealth in front of the jury. The presence of various renowned entertainment journalists from that time period is felt pretty strongly throughout the documentary, where they collectively talk about the dark side of fame based on their own experience with celebrities. I thought it was an interesting choice to dedicate a large chunk of narration to Bonnie Gayle, sister to Howard Stern, the controversial attorney who was Anna’s domestic partner and closest ally during the latter half of her life until her death. Gayle adds the perspective of an outsider who has been closer to the chaos than the rest but never a part of it.
The story of Anna Nicole Smith is one of the saddest things you will ever come across. The iconic Marilyn Monroe being Anna’s inspiration probably makes the most sense, especially considering Anna’s own fate. The question that might come to your mind is, “What is the necessity of telling a story as grim as this one?” My argument would be that we need to hear stories of all kinds, especially the ones without a satisfying ending. Anna probably would have survived a few more years if Daniel hadn’t died from a drug overdose right after the birth of Anna’s second child, Dannielynn. But her son’s death was evidently much for her to take, and effectively became the last straw. There were people in Anna’s life who did love her, but that couldn’t save her from going down the rabbit hole. Her destiny was darkness, after all.