Anna Nicole Smith went from a Texas teen mom to a stripper to the much younger wife of an octogenarian billionaire to a model/reality star to dead due to a lethal combination of prescription pills, all before the age of 40. It’s the kind of life that makes her an ideal subject for a Lifetime movie, that soapy subgenre of made for television features in which tragedies and traumas, real and fictionalized, are enacted with low production values and highly histrionic acting. Lifetime does have a classier mode of operation when it comes to its original features — see last year’s all-African American remake of “Steel Magnolias,” or May’s Allison Anders-directed June Carter Cash biopic “Ring of Fire” — but “Anna Nicole,” which airs Saturday, June 29 at 8pm, is not of that more serious, sometimes to its own detriment, ilk. No, it’s gleefully lurid from its opening montage, which flashes from Smith (played by Agnes Bruckner) on red carpets and at photo shoots to her pale corpse on a stainless steel table, as in voiceover she murmurs, “I’ll be buried as international celebrity and balls to the wall party girl Anna Nicole Smith, but I was born Vickie Lynn Hogan.”
Lindsay Lohan attracted attention and derision for her role in Lifetime’s insufficiently campy “Liz & Dick,” but the surprising name attached to “Anna Nicole” is director Mary Harron, of “American Psycho,” and she shows no concern with being stiltedly respectful with Smith’s story. Smith’s, after all, is a Hollywood disaster story turned up to 11, and the film runs through the wild beats of its protagonist’s life with an appreciative but not overly sympathetic air.
Smith wanted to be Marilyn Monroe, and like Monroe passed away on pills at a sadly young age, but her story doesn’t lend itself at all to the romanticized sense of tragedy so often applied to the screen icon. Smith didn’t long to be taken seriously, she longed for attention, at least per the movie, which likens her relationship to the camera to a moth and a flame — she was helplessly drawn to it even as it threatened to consumer her, and tended to attract as many scornful gazes as admiring ones. “Anna Nicole” sometimes realizes Smith’s glamorous persona externally, with Bruckner as a heavily made up Anna advising a not-yet-transformed Vickie — a device that, like the film as a whole, almost plays like a spoof of the similar one that tends to be applied to fictional analyses of Monroe (see “Norma Jean & Marilyn”), Smith seeming less prone to self-examination.
“Anna Nicole” could also serve as an entertainingly tawdry B-side to Harron’s “The Notorious Bettie Page” — while the 2005 film showed the 1950s pin-up as being so cheerfully free of inhibitions her bondage shoots seemed somehow immune to exploitation, Smith reaches for champagne and her prescription bottle whenever she needs to get comfortable enough to command the spotlight, though this usually leads to her dancing on a tabletop and flashing her assets.
Her rise to fame and subsequent downward spiral of indulgence, shame and regret is most surreally realized in a sequence toward the end when a doped up, pregnant Smith sits by a pool, letting her neighbor’s daughter paint her face like a clown. While Bruckner gamely dons prothetic breasts to mimic Smith’s famously (and surgically enhanced) voluptuous figure, she still bears little resemblance to Smith, but plays out her journey — from awkward first-time exotic dancer to near grotesque thrusting her cleavage in the face of her dying husband J. Howard Marshall (Martin Landau) and reality show lead chomping on junk food and arguing with producers — with abandon. “Good or bad — I am noticed!” she shrieks when confronting her mother in a rehab therapy session, hurling kleenex and curling sulkily into the sofa.
Of her fellow cast members, Virginia Madsen has the most fun in shoulder pads and a helmet-like hairstyle as Smith’s undermining parent Virgie Arthur, who in an early sequence locks her weeping teenage daughter in her room in a stated effort to stop her from going out, meeting a boy and getting pregnant at too young an age. (The movie follows this scene up with a direct cut to Smith leaving her first husband and their shared trailer with her baby.) A deadpan Adam Goldberg plays the nebbishy Howard K. Stern, while Landau actually finds some poignancy and a zesty late life energy in Marshall, who’s charmed by Smith’s unfaked goofy vibrancy and who sighs to his disapproving son E. Pierce (Cary Elwes) that “one thing I wish I’d learned earlier in life is not to worry what people think about you or start judging them for what they do.”
“Anna Nicole” isn’t going to win awards, but as showbiz rise and fall tales go, it does interestingly manage to follow the tried and true basic template while absolving its subject of the artificial sheen of victimization these portraits tends to be given. Smith ends her own story by baldly saying that while she wanted to point a finger at the doctors who wrote her prescriptions, at Stern for helping make “The Anna Nicole Show” happen, at her mother, it’s the “mirror’s where I’ve got to begin” in assigning blame. Smith’s may not be a pretty story, but the movie allows it to be hers, rather than try to strip away her agency to make her just another martyr to the fame game.