In a riveting Netflix video that portrays her at her most vulnerable and honest, the actor and activist has regained her narrative.
Within minutes of watching Pamela, a Love Story, the new Netflix documentary on probably the most known blonde bombshell of the last 30 years, it’s clear that Pamela Anderson is a fantastic historian of herself. Anderson guides the camera through treasure after a trove of recordings – VHS cassettes, Hi8 film, DVDs, hundreds of notebooks written with her huge, bubbled handwriting – dressed simply in a white T-shirt and without makeup. Boxes of home films and artifacts kept at her childhood home on Vancouver Island were made available to filmmakers without restriction.
Pamela, a Love Story spans Anderson’s entire 55-year career, from her turbulent childhood in Ladysmith to her discovery by a Labatt beer scout at a Canadian football game, to her transformation into a Playboy cover girl and Baywatch babe, to the public’s fascination with her whirlwind marriage to rocker Tommy Lee. There’s the misery caused by the theft and release of her private tapes, later professional setbacks and stumbles, life with her two boys Brandon and Dylan, many marriages, and few regrets.
In other words, there’s enough material for a biography here, albeit it’s seldom mediated by anybody other than Anderson herself, usually with a chuckle and a stunning amount of unguardedness, and largely through watching her watch her archive. The film has a tenderness to it that reflects how Anderson portrays her own life and career – sensitive, contemplative, a touch mischievous, and seems confused and baffled by notoriety. “You could probably produce a terrific biography of Pamela Anderson. “I really didn’t want to do it,” director Ryan White explained to the Guardian. “Once I met her and saw how she perceives the world, I was completely taken… “I wanted her to be the shepherd in her own life tale.”
White, who recently directed the Mars rover film Good Night Oppy, was first hesitant to make a celebrity documentary, let alone one with Anderson’s larger-than-life, troubled persona. “I absolutely pigeonholed her as a specific sort of personality, which she turned out not to be,” he said. He initially met her through her son Brandon, who is a producer on the film; Anderson has stated that she returned to the spotlight with the film and her newly released biography Love, Pamela at the encouragement of her boys, whom she shares with Lee.
White was “so intrigued by how personable she was” during an early Zoom conversation with Anderson from her home in Canada, he added. She seemed more interested in White’s life, his previous work, and his mother than in the film White would produce about her. “She simply appeared so different from her public character,” he explained, “that I thought if we could bottle this Zoom chat up and adapt it to documentary format, I believe people would be extremely astonished.”
White and Anderson both had a dislike for the traditional celebrity PR film – no talking heads, no tie-in to a future project, no narrative of control or plan. “She wasn’t willing to do things for drama, or things to make a more traditional documentary,” White explained. “She was extremely straightforward, saying, ‘This is it, make what you want out of it, but I’m not going to embellish anything.'”
That disarming candor – mention and move on – characterizes Anderson’s approach to difficult periods in her life, such as her parents’ turbulent, on-again, off-again marriage, which foreshadowed her volatile marriage with Lee (the Mötley Crüe drummer was sentenced to six months in jail for spousal abuse in 1998; they divorced after). Her abuse as a youngster by a babysitter and rape at the age of 12 by a 24-year-old friend of a friend left her “very, very timid” and humiliated. She remembers her first Playboy picture fondly, her breast enlargement self-deprecatingly (“not a lot of thought went into that choice… not a lot of thinking went into anything”), and her job as a pin-up and actor with pride. When her sexuality became a gift (and a romp) rather than a mark against her, the bombshell image symbolized self-empowerment and control for her.
The tape: the theft of an intimate video made by Anderson and Lee shortly after their wedding, which was distributed without their consent and became a viral hit on the nascent internet, is the only topic Anderson appears hesitant to discuss – and the only times during filming, White says, that she would get too nauseated to continue. Anderson suffered both emotionally and professionally as a result of the sex tape, which was pushed back into the public glare last year by the Hulu comedy Pam & Tommy (the documentary offers ample evidence that so much of late-night television has aged so poorly). “Not to bring up something difficult from my background, but when I was attacked by this person, I believed everybody would know,” she says of the public mocking of her sexuality. It felt like that when the tape was taken.”
Anderson admits that the Hulu series, starring Sebastian Stan as Lee and Lily James as Anderson, was “salt in the wound,” as she told Variety. (She stated that she had nothing against James.) Anderson said nothing publicly at the time, instead refocusing unwelcome attention on her Broadway debut as Chicago’s Roxie Hart for an eight-week winking, well-reviewed run (a personal victory celebrated in the film’s concluding part). Her statements about the show in and around the documentary have only emphasized the choice to do the show without her. “They shouldn’t have done that without my authorization,” she claims. “This reminds me of when the tape was taken.”
“I have to believe vehemently that we should be free to tell tales about real individuals and genuine public officials,” White said of the series. But it was painful to witness Anderson “go through something that was such a horrific period from her life, and then have to repeat it in the public light”.
“I believe we have to be extremely careful about whose tales we share and if they could be retraumatizing victims, especially live victims,” he added. “And wondering if it’s worth it?” Is one person’s fresh anguish worth entertainment, “no matter how popular it could be or how amazing it might be, or how great one performance might be? “Is it worth it?” “Watching Anderson go through it,” White remarked, “it wasn’t worth it to me.”
Pamela, a Love Story is in the same vein as other feminist reinterpretations of women in the public spotlight in the 1990s and aughts, ranging from Britney Spears and Janet Jackson to Lorena Bobbitt and Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story. In how she recalls her own treatment in the media and participation in the bombshell image, White views Anderson as “another major part of that debate or a crucial part of continuing that conversation,” with a combination of disappointment and bemusement but seldom animosity. “She really pushes you not to fall in those binaries, in the sense that we today live in a very binary society where you have to perceive things one way or the other or you’re wrong,” he explained. “Pamela definitely lives in the grey area.”
Anderson comes off as a romantic in the end, freely diving into love, sorrow, turmoil, and the process of documenting it all. She begins the film married (“a good Canadian gentleman, normal, decided maybe I might try that”) and finishes it divorced for the seventh time, determined to love herself. Anderson “loves an experience,” according to White. “She’s an absolute free spirit. She is a true artist. But she’s not calculating at all.”
Unlike many celebrity documentaries, the overall image is of an open-hearted person who is still a little perplexed by her own success and is still figuring things out. “She never thinks about the ultimate product,” White added. “She’s constantly in the present, having a good time or experiencing a tragedy at times.”
Pamela, A Love Story is currently available on Netflix.