With Anna Nicole Story, Mary Harron Tries Her Hand at the Prestige TV Biopic

Every once in a while, the earth is blessed with a person who is simply born to be in tabloids. Some possess formidable talents (Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Madonna) while others’ main talent is their ability to stay in the tabloids every week (Jayne Mansfield, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton). Lindsay Lohan started as the former and became the latter. Amanda Bynes’s journey into Column B has been particularly difficult to watch, as she keeps insisting on Twitter that she loves the attention. Lifetime’s last big biopic, Liz & Dickwhich attempted to capitalize on Lohan’s desperate desire to remain in the spotlight, was a total disaster and just ended up making us all sad that she’d had so much work done to her face.

Anna Nicole Smith (née Vickie Lynn Hogan) from Houston, Texas, was born to be famous. With her porn star good looks and charming, approachable drawl, she provoked the obvious comparisons to Monroe, whose early nude photographs appeared in Playboy. Like fellow blonde bombshell and ’90s sex symbol Pamela Anderson, Smith occupied a space somewhere between actress and glamour model. The marketing of Kate Upton has taken several pages out of the Anna Nicole playbook. Despite Smith’s tragic end, and the depressing/riveting slide that preceded it and was documented on a really darkly humorous reality show for E!, she will always be remembered as the voluptuous Bardot-like beach bunny from her Guess ad campaign. And for her bit in Kanye’s “The New Workout Plan.”

Lifetime’s upcoming biopic The Anna Nicole Story is directed by Mary Harron, which has sparked my genuine interest in what was already going to be a guilty pleasure. Harron already portrayed one of the nation’s premier pinups in The Notorious Bettie Page. Harron is best known for her perfect ’80s satire American Psycho, although she made her name with the equally flawless Valerie Solanas biopic I Shot Andy Warhol. (Her most recent film was The Moth Diaries, a vampire girls’ boarding school film that failed to make much of an impression.) Anna Nicole seems like a perfect fit for Harron, whose films often focus on outcasts. Anna Nicole was first put on a pedestal and then became a national punch line. To treat her story with dignity and tenderness without descending into pure camp is a challenge, one that the rousing success of Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, proved was not at all insurmountable.

Anna Nicole involves the re-creation of one unforgettable low point, a video in which an intoxicated and pregnant Anna Nicole, wearing a face full of clown makeup, clutches a baby doll and asks why she’s being recorded. Anna Nicole’s life is pure Americana, from her humble roots and Hollywood heyday to addiction and marrying an aging billionaire. If Harron’s track record is any evidence, she will probably ask at least some of the hard questions about the deceased Playmate’s life.

Since the statistics for female directors are still incredibly bleak, even more so when it comes to making mainstream films, why wouldn’t Harron try an alternative strategy like making a prestige TV movie? With House of Cards and Behind the Candelabra, it’s been demonstrated that the way a media work is delivered doesn’t have to determine its virtue. By working with Lifetime, Harron is embracing the qualities that make the network “female-oriented” and delivering to an audience that is criminally underserved by mainstream films: women who want to see stories about women’s lives made by women. People watch Lifetime movies! The Anna Nicole Story and Sofia Coppola’s upcoming film The Bling Ring both involve re-creations of E! reality shows. It’s only a matter of time before some director makes a high-art trash film about the Kardashians. I vote for Lars von Trier.

Filed Under: Lifetime

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert