Anna Nicole debuts tonight on Lifetime at 8 p.m. Eastern.
“The way I see it,” says Agnes Bruckner as Anna Nicole Smith, as she speeds down the highway in her shiny convertible with a bottle in her hand and a nose full of blow, standing up in the driver’s seat to flash her breasts at a passing truck, “God kinda played a dirty trick on people. When they’re doin’ things that ain’t good for them, He shouldn’t have made those things such gosh-darned fun.” Anna Nicole is no good for anyone, but it’s only fun in spurts. This is the second time in a month that Lifetime has rolled out a TV-movie biopic from a respected director of indie films. But where Allison Anders’ film about June Carter Cash was cheap-looking, pokey, and boringly reverential toward its heroine, Mary Harron’s take on Anna Nicole Smith is cheap-looking, garish, lurid, and hurtles toward the inevitable as if nobody involved could wait to lay the protagonist out on a slab. The movie actually opens with Anna Nicole on that slab, as her voice narrates from beyond the grave: “I’ll be buried international celebrity and balls-to-the-wall party girl Anna Nicole Smith, but I was born Vicki Lynn Hogan.”
Flash back to the days when little Vicky Lynn was a lonely rag mop of a girl whose mother, played by Virginia Madsen, “married four different men, and as far as I was concerned, none of them were worth two ugly craps.” When the current man in her mother’s life is in the bedroom molesting her aunt, Vicky Lynn looks down and sees a pristine-looking copy of the 1953 issue of Playboy with Marilyn Monroe on the cover lying on the floor next to the dirty socks, which, given that this is 1974, indicates that Mom either needs to hire a part-time housekeeper or do a better job of taking care of her collectibles. Soon, Vicki Lynn begins to see visions of a smiling blonde in a red dress in the mirror. At first, I thought this was Marilyn’s ghost, checking in on one of her admirers, in the manner of Humphrey Bogart giving Woody Allen seduction tips in Play It Again, Sam. But it’s actually Anna Nicole, showing her younger self what she has it in her to become.
Mary Harron has a history of making films about women who achieved notoriety on the fringe, including Valerie Solinas (I Shot Andy Warhol) and the bondage pin-up protagonist of The Notorious Bettie Page. Harron’s Bettie Page movie was, if anything, overly worshipful of its heroine, who it presented as not just a sweet, photogenic woman but as a resourceful, self-possessed proto-fun feminist, proud of the power of her body and generous toward those enraptured by its beauty. Anna Nicole might be about Bettie Page’s latter-day nasty twin, a dim bulb who has no idea how to take care of herself; she can only size up which men in the room are hungriest to exploit her body, and exploit them right back . Anna Nicole resents her mother’s efforts to keep her on the straight and narrow, and though Mom’s techniques are indeed over the top, so is Anna Nicole’s ability to get herself in trouble. Catching her daughter applying makeup and stuffing her bra, Mom locks her in her room, lest she end up “balling some boy in the back seat of a Buick, which will lead to an unwanted baby, which I have intent none of taking care of!” (“But Mom,” Anna Nicole protests, “I just want to go bowling!”) Mom turns out to be a regular Nostradamus, and when Anna Nicole, baby in tow, leaves her first husband, Mom is ready to supply her unique brand of comfort: “I told you not to marry the fry cook at Carl’s Crispy Fried Chicken!”
When Madsen is rampaging through her scenes and the young Anna Nicole is experiencing astral projections of her fantasy self in the mirrored walls in the dressing room at the strip club, Anna Nicole looks as if it might become an ambitious train wreck, on the order of Larry Peerce’s Wired, in which John Belushi (Michael Chiklis) woke up in the morgue and went on a guided tour of his life with a Puerto Rican angel played by Ray Sharkey. No such luck. After Anna Nicole visits a plastic surgeon—the doctor, asking her what she has in mind, points to a peach, a grapefruit, and a melon all lined up on her desk; in response, Anna Nicole pulls out a bowling ball bag—and meets her eighty-something future husband J. Howard Marshall (Martin Landau), the flamboyance leaks out.
When it does, all that's left is a series of scenes of sad degradation and humiliation, made all the sadder by any affection a viewer might have for the actors—especially Landau, who’s actually about Marshall’s age when he met Smith. It’s no fun watching him park himself in a wheelchair and say things like, “I can’t spring wood anymore, what do I want to go to a strip club for?” Anna Nicole finally agrees to marry him when it looks as if her antics have destroyed her modeling career. Then she gets a call to fly to Greece for a shoot, on the day or her wedding. She leans over to give poor Howard a kiss and tells him that she’s sorry she has to miss their wedding night, but she’ll make it up to him when she gets back. He makes a face like his puppy had just died and moans, “Let’s hope I’m still warm.” Anna Nicole flies off to do her shoot and discovers, that even though "I didn't ask for the Zanax, quaaludes, and Dom to be waiting on me like long-lost pals, they just were," albeit thanks to a forgotten rider in her contract. The girl can't help it. Anna Nicole may see herself as both a wild rebel and a victim, but she's really just passive to a suicidal degree. Harry may see this more clearly than Anna Nicole does, but it's still not a great defining quality for someone whose life is supposed to keep you interested for two hours.
With Cary Elwes as Marshall’s disapproving son and Adam Goldberg as Anna Nicole’s agent, Howard K. Stern, Anna Nicole has a surprisingly classy supporting cast. (And Goldberg has a few funny moments as the super-jaded Stern; if a spaceship landed on the front lawn, he'd shrug and call NASA to ask about alien currency exchange rates.) But Harron doesn’t seem to care about any of these people, and it’s hard to blame her. (Who should have been appointed the task of putting Anna Nicole’s life onscreen? Maybe John Waters, Darren Aronofsky, and Wes Craven, working in shifts.) By the time Anna Nicole’s teenage son has visited his mom on the birth of her second child, pleasantly asked if she knows who the kid’s father is, then helped himself to something from her purse and fatally O.D.’ed in a corner of the hospital room, it’s become all too clear that this is a not a story that anyone should have agreed to tell for the hell of it, or just because they needed the work.