Injustice For All: Mary Harron’s Anna Nicole Revisited

Philippa Snow reassesses the American Psycho director's made-for-TV movie on the life of Anna Nicole Smith

Welcome to Injustice For All, a semi-regular feature here on The Quietus in which we ask our writers to nominate their choice of underrated film and to argue its case. For this instalment Philippa Snow takes up arms in defence of Mary Harron’s TV movie, Anna Nicole.

Like American Psycho, the movie, Anna Nicole — released on the Lifetime channel with the schmaltzier title The Anna Nicole Smith Story, and directed by Mary Harron — is mostly a campy black comedy. Or, like American Psycho, the book, it’s melodramatic, satiric, and probably should be illegal. It’s the totally-unclassic story of girl meets ancient, billionaire boy; girl shoots to international fame and addiction; ancient billionaire dies, girl is out on her ass, and her ass grows accordingly. Girl hawks diet pills. Girl fucks boys in public and girls in private. Girl meets a cheesy, sleazy lawyer named Howard K. Stern, who helps her to sue for all she believes she’s earned of the ancient billionaire’s money— meanwhile, girl goes on TV and belches and slurs, and falls down and gets stuck in a deckchair, and screams that she’s not a bulimic, but just in there taking a shit for a half-hour, so what’d you think about that, MTV?

Written in cursive pink, the opening-credit typography looks like the type on a beachy Floridian postcard — Wish You Were Her[e]? —or the text on a t-shirt that says Bitch, or Princess. It is, tonally, ‘ironic hillbilly’. This particular hillbilly’s story is both all-American and unbelievably psychotic, meaning that Harron is perfect to tell it. As is often the case, it begins with a teen whose dull, brown braids belie the blonde soul of a golddigger. Vickie Lynn, before Anna Nicole, looks like every other young girl who once picked up a copy of Hustler and thought: why not this? Her mother is played by Virginia Madsen, who later went on to star as Jennifer Lawrence’s mother in Joy, another film about female ingenuity. First, we see her barreling downhill, which feels like a metaphor —then we’re in stepfather’s bedroom, the camera half-squatting to show us his porno mags under the bed, and the scene is familiarly sordid. We recognise a bad seed when we see one, and see one immediately.

Having her pick up an issue of Playboy and finger it lovingly while he’s there audibly raping her Ma’s teenage sister is a) heavy-handed enough to be dumb, or b) so blunt it’s brilliant, though the overall impression is less “so bad that it’s good,” more “so mad it’s subversive.” If I were to call the film one thing, I’d call it nihilist. When adapting American Psycho, Harron stopped short of the rat scene. In Anna Nicole, the screen’s crawling with vermin. The world, she suggests, is one filled with the kinds of father figures we only wish were absentee dads. The movie’s men are either saintly sons, or they’re user-abusers, or toothless old invalids, so that when Vickie-Lynn’s mother is screeching ”it’s men that have ruined my life”, it’s hard not to shrug: Amen to that, sister. Fathers, says Anna Nicole, “aren’t worth two ugly craps” — and most sons grow up sooner or later, which makes them a part of the problem.

Harron, to date, has made four feature films, and all four of them feature rape victims: three of those women are real, and the rest — Psycho’s girls — are a probable metaphor. Her two best-known characters are a grisly killer of women, and a would-be castrator of men. “People [look down on] melodrama,” she told Vice the year that the film came out. “Why is [female melodrama] looked down on, and other things are cool? Forms that are looked down on like female melodrama have a lot of energy in them.” This is a film for girls whose energy is all about the fact that they hate their fathers, or for girls who want to feel grateful to have them. It’s the Lifetime movie that Lindsay should have been doing instead of Elizabeth Taylor’s, though maybe she already made it by filming The Canyons. The timeline of Anna Nicole is also fucked with as much as its subject is generally fucked: why, for instance, would a 1970s redneck have a pristine copy of Marilyn’s Playboy, published in 1953? Why replace ‘Lady In Red’ in a stripper’s routine with a campy, new dance song? Harron makes errors so large I assume they’re not errors. Her goofs feel like pratfalls, designed to unnerve or provoke laughs, so slip-ups turn into banana-skins.

"I wasn’t very popular at school," Smith tells Larry King Live on a televised trip to her hometown. "I was flat-chested. But then I got boobs.” Both flat, unpopular Vickie Lynn and popular 42DD Anna Nicole Smith are played by The Bold And The Beautiful’s Agnes Bruckner, who I assume has been cast not because she looks just like Anna Nicole, but because she looks just like Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone in Showgirls. Bruckner is game, and the work that she does is not stellar, but interesting. Played for laughs, it’s a match for Anna Farris’ coltish, cleverly-stupid turn in The House Bunny. She is realer exclaiming "I feel like poop!" to her dealer than playing a mother who’s mourning her son, though both moments are miserable. No line reading is ever as smooth as her prosthetic chest-plate, which dazzles like something from Cronenberg.

The strangest thing about Anna Nicole is the way its most sinister moments aren’t over, but underplayed — though at the races she dry-humps a girl, in the real-world she dry-humped a vehicle. Have you ever seen anything dreamier, more like a nightmare, than Anna Nicole Smith’s Trimspa, Baby! advertising? If you know it, you’ll know what I mean. It’s woozy. Slurry. It feels like Xanax. I am, almost always, loathe to use the word ‘Lynchian’ given its present-day overuse, but how else to describe the scene in Anna Nicole where she’s wearing her wedding dress to a funeral? Or one where there’s slow motion dancing where one of the dancers is able, and one’s in a wheelchair? Narrating her death from the mortuary slab in her rubber twin peaks, Bruckner’s all Laura Palmer, the shade of her wig more like ice than champagne. Watching Anna Nicole, you wonder: why is it always brunettes who become the big-B blondes, and never the actual blondes? It’s as if being blonde —truly, famously blonde — is a learned trait. Sugar babies’ occasionally-hardscrabble lives are built with their roots deep in real economics, as women aware of their value are, typically, women who win when the house does. Harron’s heroine hits the jackpot before she hits rock bottom. Anna Nicole is, like all good Lifetime movies, a cautionary tale; a Mother, May I Sleep With — well, everyone.

As Alma says in Bergman’s Persona, whether or not you’re dishonest only matters in the theatre — and “perhaps not even there,” so why bother trying to be real at all? In life, the “real” Smith was a variation on what the author Kate Zambreno might say was a Green Girl: an ingénue who’s raw in the middle like cookie dough. "I can think of several blonde Hollywood actresses,” Zambreno writes in her book of the same name. “They are not as memorable as the classics, Marilyn or Jean, those starry creations that burned bright, died young. I think of young celebrities in the media, stalked by our eyes, the paparazzi, those magazines we read. They exist to draw attention. Aware of the whole world watching. They are green girls…we give birth to them. Then we destroy them with our insatiable desire to have entrance into their private lives.” Given Anna Nicole’s good-girl-gone-porno aesthetic, it’s easy to think of the same year’s Lovelace, which sought — unhiply — to link the sexual violence of men with adult entertainment. If I had to give the film another title, I might call it This Property Has Been Condemned, after the movie starring Natalie Wood where she’s also a small-town beauty who dies (called, near-twinning Persona, “Alva”). Smith, of course, is the property — and the condemnation is ours. Blessed with an icon more Guess Jeans than Norma Jean, Harron implies, our generation gets the Monroe it deserves.

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