Mary Harron has tackled Valerie Solanas, Bettie Page, and Patrick Bateman. Now she takes on the fractured fairy tale story of Anna Nicole Smith.
While it doesn’t come close to Star 80 quality, Anna Nicole is better than expected and features standout work from its director and actors. Now airing on Lifetime, it has already broken the channel’s ratings record for its movies.
Anna Nicole was born Vickie Lynn Hogan (Julia Walters as a child, Agnes Bruckner thereafter) in small town Mexia, Texas. Even with a policewoman for a mother (Virginia Madsen), her home life is made very abusive by the various stepfather-figures who flow in and out. But it’s through one of them that she discovers what will change her life. When she finds an old issue of Playboy with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, she finds her inspiration, and from that point clings to the dream of becoming just as big an icon that the whole world loves.
But her first steps into adulthood include making the same mistakes as her mother. With her son Daniel (played at different ages, youngest to oldest, by Jackson Walters, Luke Donaldson, Caleb Barwick, and Graham Patrick Martin), she flees from abusive husband Tommy Smith (James Allen McCune). To support them, she gets a job as a pole dancer in a strip club. She initially only wanted to be a waitress, but the increased pay for dancers convinces her.
One day, Ben Walker (Alex Van) takes his boss, elderly billionaire J. Howard Marshall (Martin Landau), to the club. The wheelchair-bound Marshall soon hits it off with Vickie Lynn and they fall in love, with him vowing to take care of her and her son. With more financial backing to get her photographers and agents, her grander career begins to take off. Before long she’s featured in Playboy and the spokeswoman for Guess jeans.
But there’s something else introduced to her during her time at the club that becomes a major part of her life: a drug habit. Taking these drugs to overcome her shyness in performing, she soon graduates to more recreational use. And as Vickie Lynn becomes Anna Nicole, when she has to do more than just dance, her use becomes more frequent and, of course, results in tragedy.
It’s really the cast who elevate this. Bruckner is fantastic and goes the extra mile with prosthetic breasts that look as though they were her own. Hats off to the crew on that one. Landau is, unsurprisingly, perfect in his part, and Madsen, while not featured that prominently, makes the most of her scenes. In a substantial but too brief part is Cary Elwes as E. Pierce Marshall, J. Howard’s son (and also older than she is) who takes it upon himself to gain control of the family’s estate and cut the Smiths out of inheritance. Rounding out the cast is Adam Goldberg, playing the other Howard in Anna Nicole’s life, K. Stern.
But the TV movie format is very limiting, and many things that could really make this great are left out. For example, there is no mention of Naked Gun 33 1/3. While some might see it as a piece of trivia, it actually represents a major career coup. The prime role she had brought her into the mainstream and on the big screen just like her idol. There’s also not much of a focus on her weight gain and its effects on her. Sure we are made aware of it and see her in her Trimspa campaign, but no moments to show her really depressed by it.
This project would probably have been best as a mini-series, but for what it is, Anna Nicole does the job admirably and is a worthy entry into Harron’s (ahem) body of work.