ANNA NICOLE SMITH: YOU DON’T KNOW ME – Review by Justina Walford

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Ursula Macfarlane’s documentary You Don’t Know Me about the glamorous life and tragic end of supermodel and early reality star Anna Nicole Smith is a poignant journey taking us through the upheavals and complexities of a woman who seemed to have it all. For those who watched Smith’s rise and fall in real-time, there is a temptation to assume we already know the whole story. A woman whose life was so exposed to the world hid so little, but we soon learn she also used that exposure to manipulate media and those around her. Macfarlane’s film offers a nuanced perspective on Smith’s story, and successfully tries to fit the many facets of such a layered life into just under two hours.

The film opens with heartfelt interviews with old friends and family woven in with existing video. Missy, Anna Nicole’s long time friend is the prominent narrator in the beginning, showing us a young woman who was naïve and ambitious in their early days at a strip club in Houston. Anna Nicole Smith, then known as Vicky Lynn, is a loving single mom trying to make life better for herself and her son. Missy is our thread of humanity through the film, talking about a woman she still loves dearly.

One of the many dramatic turns in the film is Smith meeting her father for the first time. It is not only a roller coaster, but also a hint of how little we do know of the real woman. Macfarlane, not so subtly, shows us Smith’s many issues stemming from being abandoned by her father. So the reunion hits hard, he with his Elvis haircut, Anna in pigtails, as Smith attempts a lasting reunion. This complex and sadly short lived emotional space is all the more awkward with the garish opulence from limo pick up to Playboy mansion photos. It is so clear to us that fame and wealth taints every possible positive moment of Smith’s life.

We also see a new side to the relationship between Anna Nicole and billionaire J Howard Marshall. Recordings of phone calls and videos of them together show us a bond between two people who want to protect each other from vultures while also looking like the archetype vulture relationship. Throughout the documentary we see this love story as most love stories go. At first we see a genuine love and respect, which Anna later says in court “wasn’t sexual type of love… It was a deep thank you…for saving my life and my son’s life.” And yet, the voicemails and conversations we hear as her life unravels before his death show that the relationship sours. And it is not the only one as her drug addiction takes hold.

Throughout the film, what strikes at the heart of Anna Nicole Smith’s tragic life is her being so close to empowered but never being in control. The men and women who knew Anna Nicole Smith saw her as a child. No matter her own wealth and success, she is still viewed as a fragile damsel in distress. And because she is under the power of drugs, fame, and money, she never finds her own strength. She is her own worst enemy because of all of her addictions, her worst addiction, her greatest need, is feeling safe through something outside of herself.

At some point, Missy gives up. It is implied J Howard Marshall gave up just before his death. Now all those we thought could help her find herself are gone. The documentary then shifts. Missy is abruptly not woven into the interviews and footage because at this point in Smith’s life, the reality show and its players come into focus. And each person interviewed feels somehow like mere planets in Smith’s orbit. The tears we saw before are no longer there even though the years we are following are the most heartbreaking.

Smith’s only self-contained power is as a mother. She is protective of her son, Daniel, and she is in charge of who fathers her second child. The documentary reveals the shrewd woman behind the unraveling bombshell. But even that falls apart. Daniel, her introverted son, follows his mother’s footsteps in drinking and painkillers until he dies from an overdose. And it is only months before the grief and her own addiction take her.

The power of the documentary is how, as we watch the funeral, we think we understand Anna Nicole Smith. Even at this point, so much more has been shown than what was seen in the 80s and 90s, but the last five minutes reveals even more and we are yet again left to question if Vicky Lynn was ever known.

When we look at all the young women who rise quickly to fame with their beauty and sensuality, too many have stories that end tragically. Macfarlane’s documentary shows us the cost of fame but also reveals the humanity of a woman who wielded so much power and yet struggled for her own empowerment. Vicky Lynn had many stories. Anna Nicole had many stories. Which one was the real woman?

ABOUT JUSTINA WALFORD

An award-winning writer of screen and stage, Justina Walford was also the Founder and Festival Director of Women Texas Film Festival for the life of the fest and she was programming director of Oxford Film Festival for two years. A lover of adrenaline-filled movies since she could understand the word “zombie,” she is particularly drawn to strong women’s voices in alternative genres such as horror, action, and science fiction.

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