Review: Pamela Anderson Documentary Balances A Public Figure’s Appeal With a Woman’s Traumas, Fears and Dreams
Documentary filmmaker Ryan White has a true gift for not only telling heartfelt stories about people that the world has reduced to pop-culture figures (Good Ol’ Freda, Serena, Ask Dr. Ruth), but for finding the humanity in those once thought of as criminals (The Case Against 8, Assassins). Hell, his most recent film (the Oscar-short listed Good Night Oppy) made us cry about a pair of Mars rovers. Falling into the former category, his latest work is one of his most intriguing as it takes a woman who was arguably one of the world’s most recognizable faces (and bodies), Pamela Anderson, and follows her celebrity trajectory and eventually her search for validity as an abuse survivor, actor, activist and mother.
Pamela: A love story is a genuinely told account of a young Canadian tomboy who got noticed by a beer company, which made her their spokesmodel, and how that fairly high-profile gig got her a shoot in Playboy magazine, eventually making her one of the planet’s most famous blondes. In the process, it made her more of a commodity than a human being. Using journal and diary entries Anderson has kept since she was a young girl as narration (although spoken by an actor and not by the subject herself, because she believes reading some of the sadder entries would re-traumatize her), the film does a remarkable job letting us know exactly what Anderson was thinking during all phases of her life. She details her time on Baywatch and shooting her feature debut Barb Wire, having two kids (after one miscarriage), enduring several marriages, and most notoriously, how she suffered through the aftermath of a honeymoon sex tape with then-husband and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee being stolen and released into the world, opening the floodgates for late night talk show host mockery and some of the most disrespectful interviews I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
Other than brief interviews with her mother and two grown sons, Pamela: A love story’s only voice is that of Anderson. There is certainly no shortage of interview footage and other celebrity cameos (she tended to mostly marry famous men), but director White makes the wise decision to keep the focus on his subject and worry less about what others thought about her. Anderson’s interviews are done almost entirely from her home in Ladysmith, British Columbia, where she’s wearing no makeup and doesn’t seem interested in showing off her body like she once did. It’s remarkably refreshing to see how relaxed and honest she is about her life and bad choices, but she’s also clearly restless about just sitting around, especially after the pandemic. The film’s uplifting final act sees her preparing for her brief, well-received stint on Broadway in the musical Chicago, which sadly coincided with the first news that Hulu was releasing the Pam and Tommy miniseries, about their stolen sex tape, which threatens to send Anderson into a tailspin.
It’s sometimes difficult to listen to Anderson admit that Lee, who was sometimes abusive, remains the love of her life, while also realizing that she can never be with him. It saddens her that she isn’t with the father of her children, and thinks being kept from him is apt punishment for some unknown crime. But when she does have successes in her life, they are usually smaller and more personal, and they make us see her most endearing qualities. Aside from the complete absence of any mention of her time on the sitcom Home Improvement (she’s recently said in her memoir Love, Pamela that star Tim Allen exposed himself to her early in her time on the show), the movie nicely balances the conversations about her career and personal life highs and lows, and gives us a worthy portrait of woman who cares more about being a good person than being a sex symbol, and would often use her physical beauty as an avenue to call attention to causes she cared about. The film does her justice and provides a fair account of a person frequently reduced to an object.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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