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Film Review

‘Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me’ doesn’t provide much insight

5/31/2023

“Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me”
MA | 116 minutes
Director: Ursula Macfarlane
Star: Anna Nicole Smith

“Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me” is another variation on a familiar cautionary tale: a warning about fame chewing people up and spitting them out — with Netflix guilty of the very thing it attempts to highlight.

Toward the end of the documentary, we get to watch an interview with Anna Nicole Smith’s mother from 2007. In it, she remembers her daughter saying, “If my name is out there in the news, good or bad, it doesn’t matter… good or bad, I make money, so I’m going to do whatever it takes.”

And with that insight, Netflix decided to cash in on Smith’s brand as well, further highlighting the dangers of producing a documentary without its subject’s involvement. 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. 

Perhaps it’s the title, or the fact that it’s harder to make a case about someone being exploited by media in life when you’re doing the same thing after her death. Either way, “Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me” doesn’t provide as much insight as it promises to on the Playboy model/actor, who died young after living under the harsh flashes of the tabloid spotlight.

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The documentary taps into the notion that, whether we loved or despised her, the infamous celebrity from the 1990s was putting on an act, playing into a self-created character she thought she could control — until an insatiable hunger for fame and fortune swamped her other ambitions. 

To try and understand Smith’s psyche, Macfarlane takes the traditional approach, portraying her shortcomings through a lens at times both compassionate and critical, puzzling together pieces of her life captured in personal and professional photos, as well as curated news and home video footage. 

(It’s never explained where these home movies and recordings come from, and after a few recordings of phone calls play, it becomes increasingly strange. Did Smith record these? Did her husband? A third party? And why?) 

Talking-head-style interviews from Smith’s family and business associates add hearsay to milestones like her first Playboy shoot, where a record of Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” calmed her jittery nerves. 

Those who lived through the 1990s and the scrutiny of Smith in the news will remember some of her shenanigans, including a protracted legal battle over her husband’s $1.6 billion estate and her slurred speech when presenting Kanye West with an American Music Award. 

The documentary comes closest to striking a nerve when it explores the E! reality show that featured Smith, which clearly set her up as an object of ridicule after “The Osbournes” established the template of the “reality sitcom.” 

However, it seems pointless to rehash all these familiar events with little new information. The film tries to have it both ways, criticizing the media’s lurid fascination with Smith’s loud life while celebrating it at the same time. This contradictory depiction leaves the icon as enigmatic as ever, making it unlikely that it will bring comfort or closure to the people who loved her. 

Despite its efforts to present a well-rounded portrait of this determined starlet, centerfold and reality show guinea pig, the film ultimately feels like a glossier, slightly less salacious iteration of an “E! True Hollywood Story,” appealing primarily to those who relish tragic tales of the rich and famous. Although it offers a subtly stinging condemnation of celebrity voyeurism, it’s not enough to make that gut-punch land with force, and even seems guilty of the very same thing.

The phrase “rest in peace” means nothing when it comes to Anna Nicole Smith. ♦

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