Sex symbols are a link to the past, living screens upon which entire generations projected idealized beauty. By which I mean that they were the people your grandparents masturbated to. Yeah, I’m sure there’s a more highfalutin’ way to put it, but that’s what it comes down to in the end. If you want to strip away all the flowery language, all the pretensions to some higher state, and get right down to it, sex symbols get their status from folks shucking the oyster, or roughing up the suspect, to their image. Sometimes sex symbols last the test of time; I don’t know any man who doesn’t find Marilyn Monroe attractive. Sometimes they serve only to baffle future masturbators; I can’t wrap my head around anyone finding Julie Christie even slightly alluring. In every case, they are the fantasy sex partners of huge swaths of dead people, and for that, they are fascinating.
Critics would say our sex symbols are growing ever tawdrier. It’s hard to argue, what with Kim Kardashian making the leap specifically on the back of what amounts to home movie porn, and numerous other personalities following in her… well, not her footsteps. But you get the idea. And doing so with varying degrees of success — for every Paris Hilton, there’s a Farrah Abraham, and believe me, I hate coming up with a scenario where Paris Hilton is the positive example. The internet has a cheapening effect; by making everything ubiquitous (and by “everything” I mean boobs), it reduces the value of any one thing (by which I mean individual sets of boobs). Things were better in the Good Old Days, when women got famous for being virginal avatars of ultimate femininity, and would blush prettily at the slightest intimation of life’s more venal charms. This is, of course, utter bullshit.
Whenever someone speaks rapturously about the good old days, chances are that person is a) white b) wealthy c) heterosexual d) male e) running for office on the Republican ticket and f) blissfully ignorant of history. The Good Old Days never really existed, and this week’s Lifetime Theater, the biopic of zaftig sex bomb from the early ‘90s Anna Nicole, sets out to unintentionally prove just that. When she burst on the scene, first in the pages of Playboy then as the face of Guess, Anna Nicole Smith was hailed as the next coming of Marilyn Monroe. Vince Vega would have snottily clarified that Anna was far more Jayne Mansfield, but the point was that she was a curvier beauty than was in vogue at the time, and with the right makeup and lighting, could conjure comparison to the screen goddesses of yesteryear. Also, a lot of people masturbated to her.
Critics will point out that Anna Nicole was really not much more than a hillbilly, an ex-stripper and gold-digger, an attention whore and (and those who leveled this last criticism seemed to think it was the only one of value for the entire gender) Not That Hot. They pined for the refined beauty for Smith’s inspiration, the effete socialite Marilyn Monroe. You know, skipping that part about how Marilyn posed in the same girlie mag that gave Smith her start, and later died in much the same way. Monroe was also magnetic and lovely, with a screen presence so electrifying, when I saw her in All About Eve I instantly revealed the location of Liam Neeson’s kidnapped daughter. So the critics have a small point, but it’s important to look at the big picture.
Anna Nicole traces its eponymous heroine (Agnes Bruckner) from her ignoble beginnings in Mexia, Texas (named, I suspect, to win a bar bet) to international sex symbol, to sad joke, to tragic punchline. The film can’t quite decide exactly what Anna Nicole is, either. Her copious drug use is a major plot point (and bringing to mind images of Dewey Cox falling to the temptations of reefer) but at several points, it’s implied she’s faking it. In some cases, she’s shown to be playing to the cameras, and in others, she appears to be doing it for no discernible purpose. Most egregious is, after establishing that she’s on the wagon, she shows up to the Supreme Court apparently stoned, drunk or both, which would seem to be a terrible idea. For some reason, this biopic of a woman who seemed to slur more words than she spoke, who was famous for being a train wreck, and who later died from her addictions, tries to protect its subject’s nonexistent reputation.
This ambivalence extends toward her career path. While the film adopts a very tongue-clucking stance toward sex work, Anna Nicole’s breast implants and Playboy-fame are treated as triumphant steps toward international stardom. From the moment in the beginning when she breathlessly finds an issue of Playboy underneath her stepfather’s bed (while said stepfather sexually assaults her teenaged aunt in the other room — this film goes from zero to rape in two minutes, which might be a Lifetime record), she seems this as the way out of her present depressing life. She manages to use her centerfold as a springboard to become the face of Guess, and instantly pisses everything away by doing the most convincing Lindsay Lohan impression I’ve ever seen. The film hamhandedly gives us the reason for the downfall with the drugs and alcohol that make it possible for this woman to show her body, yet at the same time this exhibitionism is treated as a victory for the small town girl. Between 1992 and 1994, Anna Nicole could lay claim to being one of the most desired women on the planet, and the film rockets past the glory days, choosing instead to wallow in the misery on either end. Mary Harron, who directed this movie, also helmed the similar but vastly superior The Notorious Bettie Page, making Anna Nicole’s missteps that much stranger.
This undersells the film’s insanity. I was worried this would be some kind of drab biopic, with none of the sleazy voyeurism promised by the subject… until the appearance of my favorite character in the film, Ghost Anna Nicole. When Anna Nicole’s mom (Virginia Madsen, in one of the many overqualified cast members) throws the stepdad out for the aforementioned rapes, Ghost Anna Nicole appears to child Anna Nicole and promises fame, fortune, and earrings, because something physical never hurt. Ghost Anna Nicole appears at several times in the front half of the film, when our heroine is still going by her birth name, Vickie Lynn Hogan, egging her on whenever she has doubts over her career path. She’s Jiminy Cricket with a boob job, if Jiminy’s only advice to Pinocchio had been, “Don’t worry, kid! Everybody snorts PCP from time to time. Makes you feel great, and you can lift cars!” In the back half, as our heroine has become a shell of an addict with a career in pieces, Ghost Vickie Lynn appears with big waifish eyes as if to say, “Why did you believe that crazy bitch?”
The bulk of the runtime is given over to Anna Nicole’s relationship with her family. She has a son, Danny, from an early marriage, who grows up alongside her. As he matures, he gains a typical kid’s reaction to having a drugged-out embarrassing attention whore of a mother. As he ages further, he falls into the same trap she does, and ends up dying young in her hospital room. Her most famous relationship was with J. Howard Marshall (Martin Landau. No, seriously.), a Texas billionaire, sixty-two years Anna Nicole’s senior, who goes to a strip club against his wishes and ends up becoming instantly smitten with the balloon-breasted siren on the pole. The movie takes Anna Nicole at her word, that the relationship with J. Howard featured as much sex as a middle school dance and was more about security for her and her son once her career hit the skids. As though to prove it, she addresses him by the creepy nickname of Paw Paw, which made me want a shower every time she said it. J. Howard’s son, E. Pierce (Cary Elwes, who seems to exist only to impress upon all of us the cruelty of time) is portrayed as a sneering patrician, dead set against Anna Nicole’s livelihood simply because she is not his mother. Once J. Howard dies, the court proceedings, and the final act of our heroine’s life, begins.
This is heralded by the arrival in 1995 of Howard K. Stern (Adam Goldberg), a lawyer/agent who would have to improve greatly to qualify as merely sleazy. He finds Anna Nicole as a barely verbal junkie and sees a meal ticket in the making. He decides he’s going to make her a star the only way he knows how: by sticking her in as much cheap junk financed by as much shady foreign capital as he can. While Anna Nicole only brings up one of these, a trip to her IMDB page will show a depressing litany of increasing embarrassment. Howard is not done. His crowning achievement/crushing nadir comes in the form of The Anna Nicole Show, a reality series on E! that not only gave reality television a bad name, it will someday provide justification to the aliens who want to destroy our planet. With the sudden and incredible success of The Osbornes, every network was looking for another has-been celebrity whose life they could put onscreen. Anna Nicole’s attempt is famous — well, infamous — for being the most horrifying, voyeuristic trash of a subgenre consisting entirely of horrifying voyeuristic trash. In Anna Nicole’s version of events, she wasn’t a pill-addled wreck, but merely playing one. It’s the least convincing excuse since Eddie Murphy picked up that “hitchhiker.”
In true ambivalent fashion, the film treats even her ignominious death as a triumph. In full Ghost Anna Nicole mode (implying this was Ghost Anna Nicole’s aim all alone), she strides down a mirrored hallway, at the end of which a door opens to the snapping flashbulbs of cameras. Heaven is a red carpet? God, that is depressing and tawdry.