For Pamela Anderson, fame came gradually. First as a model for Canadian beer brand Labatt Blue. Then on the pages of Playboy magazine.
“Baywatch” was the project that brought her to life in three dimensions, even though the show’s producers treated her character as yet another set piece – there to be looked at – and that’s how audiences responded to her turn.
Consumption of her image soured and became gleefully cruel when a sexually intimate home video of her and then-husband Tommy Lee was stolen from their home. The tape turned their private moments into a public illegal ATM, and without their consent.
Anderson traces all of this in the Netflix documentary “Pamela, a Love Story,” which serves as a corrective to the Hulu limited series “Pam & Tommy,” which came out a year ago.
Anderson has had no involvement in the Hulu show, by her own choice. He wished it hadn’t been done at all. Why fish out one of the worst periods of his life? Who is it for? Tip: Those who were going to earn financially.
Many people who weren’t named Anderson and Lee made several million from that tape. Thirty years after the fact, the Hulu project has ensured a whole new group of people not called Anderson and Lee to profit again from this saga. That includes the creators of the show, as well as stars Lily James and Sebastian Stan in the lead roles.
If something isn’t right, the Netflix documentary is a chance for Anderson to sort out some of those feelings on her own terms. (Eldest son, Brandon Thomas Lee, is a producer on the film.)
The interviews take place at his home on Vancouver Island. She’s returned to the small town of her childhood “which is wild and crazy,” she says, “coming home to this crazy place where my childhood happened.”
The rocky beaches and grassy fields look idyllic. A dog is often at her side. But the memories of him are more complicated. Her mother worked as a waitress in a creperie. Her father was a “poker player, con man, chimney sweep” and also a “notorious bad boy”. Her parents fought and reconciled in an endless cycle.
Her childhood was marred by sexual abuse, first by a babysitter and then by an older man. She has learned to dissociate. “When those traumatic moments happened, I’d just leave my body and fly away and create my own little world.” She doesn’t talk about the kind of life or career she envisioned in her future for her. Maybe she didn’t know herself. “I just thought: I have to leave the island.” When Playboy came along, it was her ticket out. But she too: “Now I was about to take the power of my sexuality and take back my power.”
Too often celebrity documentaries are an exercise in image management or simple collections of archival footage mixed with recent interviews. Anderson’s documentary, from director Ryan White (whose credits also include 2019’s “Ask Dr. Ruth”) avoids many of these pitfalls. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, especially as White creates an intimacy with Anderson that gives the illusion of divesting itself of artifice.
I say illusion because interviews, by their nature, are staged, focused conversations. There is a level of performance going on, perhaps more so when the subject has been in the public eye for so long.
But White does some interesting things to undermine that cynicism. There is an informality, with the camera up close. Gone is the heavy makeup that defined Anderson’s look for so long. At 55, there are hints in her offhand sides that suggest she doesn’t feel as confident in her body as she once did. She wears loose-fitting clothes in colors like off-white and sand—call it beachy cottage core—and she’s got the ultrathin brows of someone who lived through the intense ’90s plucking, and she colors her hair with the products she buys in Pharmacy. It is unclear whether she has close friendships with women. If so, they remain hidden and unquestioned. Her golden retriever looks at her with desire and she seems happy in these moments. You don’t get the feeling that someone is hovering nervously just off camera ready to step in for a quick touch-up.
These are all intentional decisions – Anderson and White are presenting it in a specific way – but it never feels like staging.
Absences are also noted. Anderson doesn’t talk about whether she’s felt pressured to maintain a certain body image, even after her pregnancies. How could she avoid this notorious Hollywood trap?
She’s also a person full of contradictions: A sexual abuse survivor herself, she has said in previous interviews that she thinks the #MeToo movement has gone too far. You also made friends with Julian Assange, accused of rape. People are complicated and make all kinds of rationalizations that make sense to them. But the documentary does not ask her to grapple with these cognitive dissonances. It’s a missed opportunity, not to get the goods on her, but to learn more about her as Anderson constructed her view of her world.
Because so much more comes with clarity. She’s fun and a little lonely. Self-aware and self-deprecating. Smart, bright and interesting. It’s worth asking whether the fame machine couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make room for a career where these qualities could be cleverly exploited.
For too long, she has sought out men who embody the flattest stereotypes of masculinity. The relationships didn’t last. (I forget that she was once married to Kid Rock; or as she calls him, Bob.) She More than once she marries someone because “why not?” She wants a deep and real connection, but she doesn’t always sync with the “why not?”
The now infamous videotape would change his life forever. The law should have been on his side, but persistent misogyny has clouded those efforts. She recalls looking at a group of male lawyers and wondering, “Why do these grown men hate me so much?” It’s an astute observation, about the entitlement – the anger – that fuels exploitation.
There are other videotapes from that period that she keeps safe. You watch them again for the first time here. She and Lee were in love at first. “Hearing the pitch in my voice, I was happy.” But she later admits, “I’ve romanticized the past, so now that we’re talking about it a bit, I can recall some things that were really big wake-up calls — but if I didn’t think too much about it, I would think our relationship was perfect.” .
Lee was often jealous of ghosts that didn’t exist. The tape of her only complicated that dynamic and he would eventually turn violent one night while she was holding her infant son. He was sentenced to six months in prison. He wanted to be together. Anderson declined. “I just took my kids and I was like, no. It wasn’t a gray area for me. You can not do this. He still has affection for Lee—he’s wrapped up in a longing for what he could have been—but he describes their post-divorce life as “18 very long years of co-parenting.”
The tape branded her with a digital scarlet letter in a way Lee simply wasn’t. It affected her future opportunities. “I had to somehow make a career out of the pieces that were left.” The consequences have affected her two children and I’m glad the film talks about it, even briefly. Brandon talks about being a little kid and thinking “everyone had this dirty little secret about my family.” In school, if someone raised him’s mother, “I was quick to argue.”
Nearly 30 years later, his tape anxiety becomes a present-day reality again thanks to the Hulu series. She refuses to watch, but her son tells her about the first few episodes and you can see her panic building. She had blocked at least one defense mechanism. “And now that it’s all coming together again, I feel bad… I feel like I’ve been punched. I don’t feel well right now.”
Anderson doesn’t dwell on her anger, so I’ll do it for her. Hollywood likes nothing more than to pat itself on the back when it deserves nothing like it. Anderson’s story is on the public record; the producers don’t need his permission. But who is the story of “Pam & Tommy” really interested in telling?
Seth Rogen developed the series and also plays Rand Gauthier, the man who stole the tape and was never held legally responsible. The character is a sad sack whose motives are held in high esteem. In the end he feels terrible for his actions and is contrite in the end. This is a departure from the real Gauthier, he said Rolling stone in 2014 that he “likes that he contributed this little token to the world and has always enjoyed watching the tape itself.” The creators of the show they state that their intentions were sincere and hoped that the series could “maybe find a little payoff for Anderson”. It’s an empty feeling.
The documentary humanizes her experience — and the vapor trails that never seem to fully die down — in ways a scripted prestige project never could.
Anderson says he hasn’t received any money for distribution of the tape. This was his calling. He seemed too crass, too morally compromised. Do you regret not monetizing it, White asks her. No, and she could have used the money too. “I’m not that person when it comes to money. I just want my credit card to work and I want to be able to get my nails done. That’s a very down-to-earth feeling—and then later you see a full-sized shipping container on her property that’s filled to the brim with her shoe collection. Now, Pamela.
The shoes come out because she is packing for a long trip to New York. She starred in “Chicago” on Broadway, an eight-week series as Roxie Hart. I was struck by how busy she is during rehearsals. It’s a reminder that Anderson’s fame predates the social media era of influencers who get by without talent or charisma. She has the stuff. And when she takes the stage, you cheer for her—and she’s good. Really good. She doesn’t have a powerful voice, but in the clips we see, it’s clear that she understands the inner life, pain and humor, of a vampire like Roxie Hart.
And she imbues the quiet opening lines of “Nowadays” – “It’s cool, isn’t it? Great, isn’t it? Great, isn’t it? Great, isn’t it? – with a mournful sentiment that I found unexpected and moving. It’s a highlight to end the documentary on, but a well-deserved one too.
Much of “Pamela, a Love Story” is about a woman who seeks love from men who saw her as someone to be obtained and then controlled. The best romance might just be the one she develops with herself.
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