Anna Nicole: TV Review
8 p.m. Saturday, June 29 (Lifetime)
Judith Verno, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron
The Lifetime original movie paints Anna Nicole Smith as pitiable yet always likable, even as her desperate desire for fame fueled her public self-destruction.
While it took mere months for Lifetime to conjure up their rote take on Jodi Arias, The Anna Nicole Story has been almost six years in the making. The wait has been to their benefit, because the time away from Smith's free fall has allowed it to feel newly tragic all over again.
It was in 2007 that Anna Nicole Smith, aka Vickie Lynn Hogan, the small-town Texas girl who grew up to embody one of the most spectacularly unfortunate public meltdowns of modern Hollywood, died from a cocktail of prescription drugs at the age of 39. That rags-to-riches story is an old Hollywood fable continuously reflected in a constant rotation of bright young things. But The Anna Nicole Story manages to breathe new life into the tale of yet another young woman with a misplaced Marilyn Monroe obsession that turns into a curse.
The Anna Nicole Story is just as absorbing as the original rise and fall of Smith and is based on Dan Paul Lee's 2011 New York Magazine article, "Paw Paw and Lady Love," which chronicled Smith's bizarre life through the framework of her Supreme Court case against the hostile son of her deceased billionaire husband, J. Howard Marshall. Although many will remember Smith as a pitiful creature stuffed with booze and pills and paraded in front of cameras by her "attorney and confidant" Howard K. Stern, The Anna Nicole Story gives Smith the opportunity to also be portrayed as a likable but simple girl with moderate ambitions who allowed herself to be used up for fame but dulled the sensation with substance abuse.
Though Agnes Bruckner (Private Practice) is at times a frighteningly accurate Smith clone, the real scene stealer is Martin Landau (Ed Wood) as the elderly J. Howard Marshall, who falls in love with the stripper still known then as Vickie and gives her a lavish life before marrying her as her career bottomed out. Landau's Marshall is a man who understands and fully accepts his "Sugar Daddy" status with a rueful smile, as his eyes wander down and widen at his Lady Love's amply augmented bosom. However, by the time his son, E. Pierce (played with a caddish evenness by Cary Elwes), has found a way to cut Smith out of Marshall's fortune, he is too weak to fight back, and she loses everything.
Enter, stage left, the infamous Howard K. Stern. As Stern, Adam Goldberg (2 Days in Paris), creeps around the edges of his scenes, filming Smith and acting as her enabler, though (oddly) warding off any sexual advances. Smith's son Daniel (played as a teenager by Graham Patrick Martin) tries to act as a buffer among his mother and her demons and yes-men, but it is during Stern's time in their life that he finally, tragically, gives up.
The movie only alights on Stern briefly, preferring instead to focus more on Smith's long history of substance abuse and out of control behavior. Though the movie is framed with Smith dreaming of her time as the glamorous and famous Anna Nicole, The Anna Nicole Story illustrates just how short a period that really was. Most of her life was spent in a fog as she was used, manipulated and objectified, sometimes by her own design. "That's the price of fame, huh?" she says after being badgered into another topless photo shoot. It is for a certain kind of fame. "Marilyn got JFK, and I got the two Howards," says the happily deluded voice-over.
The movie is a downward spiral that ends with multiple victims, including Smith's son, who died from an overdose on his mother's pills just days after half-sister, Dannilynn, was born (and five months before his own mother died). But it doesn't touch on some of the worst parts of Smith's eventual decline that Lee covers in his long-form piece, such as the collaborative exploitation by those closest to her to keep her on drugs. It also ends on a strange high note, as if Smith somehow "escaped" through death instead of it being the the final act of the lifetime of abuse that defined her.
While the movie is overall an engaging watch, it ends up on neutral ground. The bad wigs and fluctuating accents are counteracted by Mary Harron's (American Psycho) dream-like direction. The emphasis on plot points rather than character development is occasionally shaken by some of the noteworthy performances (such as Virginia Madsen as Smith's hard-bitten mother). Ultimately though, after the final cavalcade of tragedies, the whole thing feels unsatisfying. Then again, that in and of itself may be most accurate of all the statements regarding Smith's life and legacy.