Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Pamela, a love story (2023) dir. Ryan White

"The ultimate Pam Anderson pictorial" (Playboy, Jan 1996)


Blonde, while an adventurous subversion of the biopic, shares an unsurprising sentiment about female celebrities pigeonholed into a sexualized role: they are treated like shit. If you don’t find a particular desire to share Dominik’s fascination with paparazzi torture or top-exec malevolence, there are a few documentaries that are more concise and to the point. Framing Britney Spears and Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, both produced by the New York Times and available to watch on Hulu, are examples of women shamed by their sexualities (which in other instances had positively contributed to their popularity), demeaned by interviewers, banished by mainstream media, and wronged by Justin Timberlake. This is a tale as old as time.

Pamela, a love story, a bio-documentary about Pamela Anderson, doesn’t reveal anything surprising about Hollywood’s treatment towards its subject. Arguably one of the biggest household names at the turn of the millennium, Anderson first gathered attention at the Playboy Mansion before she dabbled in film and became involved with Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee for one of the most infamous pieces of circulating media, right as internet access hit home computers. The documentary runs in the same vein as its NYT predecessors, but after seeing director Ryan White’s Good Night, Oppy, I had a feeling that there was going to be something different than watching (or re-watching) an emotional beating of a contemporary famous woman existing in the public eye.

One of the most striking differences about Pamela, a love story is that it truly feels like Anderson controls the narrative, a sort of authority that was out of her hands at the height of her fame. While Framing Britney Spears plops Spears at the center of a career and personal whirlwind that firmly categorizes her as a victim, Pamela leaves the power to the subject to pick and choose what goes into her story. Pam & Tommy, a television series that Anderson has been vocally opposed to, may be one of the big reasons why her name is recirculating nowadays and possibly why this documentary exists. However, that TV series feels like a blip in the overall destination of the Pamela Anderson experience, which is somewhat of a special phenomenon not for the world of celebrities, but for a woman looking to be seen, heard, and loved. 

“Bare, Pamela! Bare, raw!” A makeup free Anderson jokes in a scene, referring to her old shoots at the Mansion. In the documentary, Anderson is situated in her home located at her birthplace, Ladysmith in British Columbia. (This was the first shocking fact: Anderson, who is partly responsible for creating the image of the all-American babe, is not just Canadian, but also a super Canadian; she was given a medal for being a Centennial baby). After being hand-picked from the audience of a football game to star in commercials (nepo babies when?), Anderson lands at the steps of Hugh Hefner’s residence, where history then speaks for itself. The present-day Anderson is wistful, joyfully self-deprecating, and a hopeless romantic. If I could choose a guru for hardship, it would be a divorced woman who had run through the media-frenzy gauntlet and lives to tell jokes about her sex life. Even if you couldn’t care less about self-redemption stories or celebrity documentaries, there is a genuine warmth about smiling at Anderson despite the circumstances instead of being shocked at what transpired.

The documentary itself? It doesn’t ride on everything that Anderson is famous for (there isn’t a mention of her crucial role in Borat, which had caused her a severe injury and broke up her marriage to Kid Rock) but rather the moments that meant more to her (such as her box office bomb, Barb Wire, where she was at one point working 18 hours a day while pregnant with Lee’s child). But Anderson, who has a compulsion towards journaling (which is something I personally appreciate, as we also somehow have the same journal of a mapped city), deeply wants to share her story, as long as it’s on her own terms. She jokes about marrying Lee after knowing him for four days (“What’s my last name going to be? Don’t you have another name?” she remembers asking him before realizing that she thought his name was Tommy Lee Jones). To the embarrassment of her adult sons, she jokes about her vivacious career  — and while her Playboy images dominate a large part of the flashbacks, their presence feels as vital as the absence of her infamous home videos, which she did not make a single penny from. Pamela doesn’t intend to be gimmicky or asks for vengeance. For 112 minutes, a woman is freely on top.

Pamela, a love story
dir. Ryan White
112 min.

Streaming on Netflix beginning Tuesday, 1/31

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