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There aren’t that many key takeaways from Ryan White’s Netflix documentary Pamela, a love story, but perhaps the most important is this: Pamela Anderson knows what she’s doing.
Discussing her decision to pose naked for a series of PETA ads, Anderson observes frankly, “You have to be brave and you’ve gotta use what you’ve got.”
Pamela, a love story
Director: Ryan White
1 hour 54 minutes
January is ending with a pair of Anderson-centric projects — Pamela, a love story and the unrelated (but totally related) memoir Love, Pamela — released with the common narrative that pop culture in general and the media in specific treated Pamela Anderson salaciously, getting hung up on her body and her dating life and, eventually, on her stolen sex tape, in the process negating her genuine voice. But in order to attract attention to the projects devoted to recovering that voice and reclaiming her narrative, Anderson isn’t opposed to seeding the ground with a few salacious details. So people are talking about the Tim Allen revelation from Love, Pamela and the claim from the documentary that Sylvester Stallone offered her a Porsche and a condo to be his mistress.
I haven’t read the memoir, so I don’t know if there are long stretches dedicated to Home Improvement and Tim Allen’s penis, but I do know that the Stallone story in the documentary isn’t even a story. It’s one sentence tossed off with an incredulous giggle, one of several asides that I suspect Anderson is fully aware will be aggregated into “5 Most Shocking Revelations From Pamela Anderson’s New Documentary” news reports. And Home Improvement and Allen don’t even warrant a mention in the documentary.
Depending on your perspective, the biggest problem with Pamela, a love story may be how hard it will be to cobble together that sort of story. Like, if you reach, you could highlight Anderson’s one-sentence reference to dating Scott Baio and Mario Van Peebles at the same time? Is that shocking? Or is it shocking that when she and Tommy Lee had their whirlwind wedding, she had actually been dating surfer Kelly Slater?
Maybe it isn’t exactly that Pamela, a love story is unrevelatory. It’s just that what it reveals is that once you get past the tabloid-friendly headlines from the ’90s and ’00s, the actual Pamela Anderson is a fairly smart, fairly funny and fairly boring — not in a critical way at all, just in a way that runs counter to expectations — woman who just wants love. She also — and this actually is a problem — has always been a fairly candid interview subject. Want to know what she thought about the theft and release of the Tommy Lee sex tape? For 25 years, she’s told anyone who would listen. Want to know about her generally complicated relationship with Lee, the father of her two sons? For 25 years, she’s told anyone who would listen. She’s talked about her horrible history with sexual violence, about feeling empowered when she first posed for Playboy, about her love for being in love.
In Pamela, a love story, one of her sons — I think it was Brandon, who is a producer here as well — says that his mother has never had a problem talking about things, even when they get her in trouble. And it’s true! Long before this recent narrative shift to approaching Pamela Anderson as a person of some substance, I’d already thought of her as a surprisingly good talk show guest, a woman capable of gritting her teeth through leering interviews with men — always men, too frequently Jay Leno, whose status as one of the more toxic pop culture figures of the past 50 years becomes increasingly clear – and getting her message across, not that people listened.
This, unfortunately, leaves White, the prolific director behind Ask Dr. Ruth and Good Night Oppy, with the task of trying to make compelling content out of a woman whose greatest determination as filming began was to be normal. White catches Anderson having moved back to her childhood community of Ladysmith, BC. She has attained near anonymity by eschewing makeup and wearing a mask — COVID, not Phantom of the Opera — and even attempting to marry a normal guy (don’t get too invested). She’s surrounded by crates full of diaries and stacks of VHS cassettes and DVDs. An amusing point that White is able to make is that Anderson has been documenting her whole life, but she’s associated with one stolen tape. The documentary makes solid use of all of that footage — much featuring Anderson and Lee’s relationship without any sex at all — and even erratically augments current footage to resemble vintage film stock.
The recounting of her oft-recounted life is presented with head-scratching dullness, as even Anderson gives the impression that she’s told these stories too many times and other than a whimsical romanticism — Pamela Anderson loves love, in case you haven’t been told — her diary excerpts add little. There’s a giddiness to how White uses Anderson’s Playboy pictures and videos, nudity entirely uncensored, that feels the tiniest bit sleazy, but there’s a distinction that both she and the film want to make about the difference between approved exposure and unauthorized exposure, and I get the distinction on an intellectual level.
No matter how frequently she’s discussed the sex tape, that chapter of her life at least raises her hackles, as does her irritation at the arrival of Hulu’s Pam & Tommy. She hasn’t watched the miniseries, which limits her ability to say anything of substance about it, and it feels worth mentioning that all of the things she wants to emphasize about the tape and its aftermath — the ghoulish attorneys saying she had no right to privacy, the double-standard of how the tape impacted her career versus Tommy’s — are things that were central to Pam & Tommy. Her message is that a show about the exploitation of her image without her approval that was conceived without her approval was just exploiting her image again. And it doesn’t matter if the show was saying the right things. She’s right. She just can’t talk about it with authority. Nor, incidentally, should she have to.
Maybe in the last 30 minutes, Pamela, a love story (and Anderson herself) gets a new energy. She goes to New York to do a two-month stint in Chicago on Broadway, and the process of rehearsing and then performing for appreciative audiences produces a joy and a pride that are all her own. It’s hard to know what this documentary even would have been if the Broadway opportunity hadn’t come up. Her eagerness at getting to launch a scary new chapter in her life is infectious, as is the pleasure that sons Brandon and Dylan take in seeing this side of their mother. Both sons, it should be added, come across as much more likable than you’d expect from anybody who briefly had Kid Rock as a stepfather (one of many things in the doc that are good for a chuckle, but approximately zero dirt).
But don’t expect that tidbit to compete with the Stallone accusations for coverage in a documentary that’s probably more low-key than audiences will want and exactly as low-key as its subject would prefer.
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