Anna Nicole Smith doc director hopes viewers tuning in for 'scandal and gossip' walk away 'feeling they've gotten to know a real woman'
Ursula Macfarlane, the director of Netflix's "Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me," talks about the late star's rise and fall.
Anna Nicole Smith was a larger-than-life celebrity with the labels that go with it. There was Playmate, Guess model and blonde bombshell. There were less favorable ones too: "gold digger," "tabloid star" and "train wreck."
Now 16 years after Smith's death, Ursula Macfarlane, the director of Netflix's new documentary Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me, wants viewers to consider another one: human. In the film, she retells the story of the blonde bombshell who did whatever it took to get out of Texas to make a life for her son, Daniel, with commentary from some of the people who knew her best.
"A big desire for this film is that people will tune in partly because of the glitz and the glamour and the gorgeousness and the color and the tabloids and all of that stuff that we know about," Macfarlane tells Yahoo Entertainment, "but they come away with a much deeper understanding of a human being."
A woman who "wanted to be a good mom," she continues. "That was her driving force. Obviously her son died tragically," from an accidental drug overdose in September 2006, "and she was only able to be with her daughter [Dannielynn] for a few months" before Anna Nicole died of the same cause of death in February 2007, "but she ... worked hard to provide a home for Daniel. She also really wanted a baby girl and talked about it for years, building a little chest of toys and clothes. So perhaps viewers go in for scandal and gossip, but come away feeling they've gotten to know a real woman."
One label Anna Nicole despised was the gold digger one, adds producer Alexandra Lacey. That, of course, was born from her headline-making 1994 marriage to Texas billionaire J. Howard Marshall when she was 26 and he was 89. It ballooned as she fought for part of his fortune after his death. The film paints the relationship as a real and nurturing one.
"She desperately did not want to be known as a gold digger," Lacey says, "and sadly that’s so much the memory in many people's minds. So our hope too is that viewers may come to it thinking: 'OK, we'll see the gold digger,' but actually what they'll get is a humanizing portrait of a woman” — perhaps one they can "relate to" or "empathize with. Perhaps today's audience is the right audience to hear her story."
But Anna Nicole's story is a complicated one and at points, dark. The film looks at how she crafted her image, going from Vickie Lynn Hogan — high school dropout, teen mom and Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken employee — to exotic dancer “Nicki” and later to "Anna Nicole Smith," the stage name she and Guess's Paul Marciano created. However, despite being dubbed “the next Claudia Schiffer” and landing movie roles like Coen brothers's The Hudsucker Proxy, she took a sharp turn and began leaning into being a tabloid star, which became her undoing.
Her secret lover
The film features unearthed video of glamorous Anna Nicole in her early days of stardom after posing for Playboy in 1992 and becoming Playmate of the Year in 1993 as well as new interviews with family, friends and other players. One is friend Missy Byrum, who she met at the strip club and became her roommate (in the house Marshall bought Anna Nicole) and assistant. The documentary details what seemed to be a genuine love affair between Missy and Anna Nicole in the early '90s.
“Missy was a little bit older and took Anna Nicole under her wing,” Macfarlane says. “They had a lot of fun together — during that whole period of meeting J. Howard Marshall [at the strip club], Playboy, the Guess commercials and getting the Coen brothers film. Missy was there for the ride but she was behind the scenes. When Anna Nicole got her part in the movie, they’re trying to be serious, then they run downstairs and they’re screaming together. You get this sense of these two young women who just can't believe their luck. They're in Hollywood.”
They were also two women having a secret romance, according to the film.
“I think they really loved each other,” Macfarlane says. “Anna Nicole wanted Missy to have her baby, but Missy refused. They got married; they had their own little ceremony. Anna Nicole gave her rings. It was a proper, deep relationship.”
Lacey says of the romance, “To our knowledge Anna Nicole never self-identified as bisexual, but she did seem to be a very open woman” which was “very progressive at the time.” However, “to be a Playmate but also bisexual maybe wouldn't have been — who knows — fully OK?” Plus, “I think people forget how old she was at the time. She was so young. And if we think of ourselves as young women, coming of age and discovering ourselves, she was doing all of that."
The relationship ended after “Nicki,” as Missy knew her, “transformed into this different person, really becoming 'Anna Nicole Smith,'” Macfarlane says. And the split was exacerbated by Anna Nicole’s growing addiction to painkillers, which she relied on to numb the pain after numerous breast augmentation surgeries and severe back pain.
“It was a difficult time for Missy. There was a real sadness there,” Macfarlane says. Also in hindsight knowing that Missy — who acted as Anna Nicole’s assistant and cared for Daniel — “perhaps could have kept her a little bit more grounded. I think Missy watched from afar and was very upset to see what happened to Anna Nicole but couldn't really do anything about it once they were estranged and felt great sadness about the whole thing.”
Rocked by betrayal
Missy also revealed a life-altering experience Anna Nicole had at that time. She had a tumultuous relationship with her mother, Virgie Arthur, and had been estranged from her father, Donald Hogan. After she landed Playboy and had experienced some stardom, she hired a private investigator to track down her dad. Thrilled to find him, she flew him and her half-brother Donnie to L.A., filming the reunion. But it took a dark turn when Donald — who died in 2009 — "tried to have sex with her,” Missy claimed Anna Nicole told her.
Donnie, who’s interviewed in the film, learned about the allegation on camera in a raw moment. (In the film, Donnie called Donald a “monster,” while talking about how he raped Virgie’s 10-year-old sister. Donald pleaded guilty to that rape as well as another and served some time in jail.)
“Missy told us this story and we had every reason to believe her,” Macfarlane says of Donald's alleged abuse against Anna Nicole. “We did a lot of corroborative work to make sure that people were in the places they said they were at the time and weren't making stuff up.”
Macfarlane says they tried to cover the topic “in a very sensitive way,” but “we did feel that we had to ask Donnie that question… We're just trying to get to the truth, and we felt — and feel — that it's a very important part of Anna Nicole's story. I mean, you can trace in the timeline how things start to unravel for her after that moment. Drugs, getting into big altercations. It's not that things didn't happen before then, but there's definitely a shift that we observe.”
Turning down The Mask
In a lighter moment, viewers get to see a young Anna Nicole navigating early fame in newly uncovered footage provided by her friend Ashley Wells Lewis. Lewis allowed Anna Nicole to stay in her Malibu guest house early on, and she included Anna Nicole in a doc she was making about aspiring stars.
In one scene from that footage, Anna Nicole was on the phone discussing being offered a role in 1994’s The Mask. She said she was insulted by a lowball offer of $50,000 for the film so she declined — instead appearing in Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult. Of course, another model — Cameron Diaz — went on to star with Jim Carrey in The Mask and it catapulted her to stardom.
“I can't remember who told us but apparently Anna Nicole couldn't bear to hear Cameron Diaz's name after that,” says Macfarlane, who calls Lewis’s footage “gold for the film” and a “gift.”
Lacey adds, “It's crazy to think what might have happened to her career if she had taken that role. It would have been a massive game-changer.”
Embracing tabloid stardom
Another shift Anna Nicole went through was after Marshall — who funded her lifestyle, but whom she appreciated and felt affection for — died in 1995. Looking for someone else to take care of her in many ways (as her court battle for Marshall’s money was fruitless), she leaned on her attorney and co-conspirator Howard K. Stern.
With Stern by her side, she became a reality star and tabloid staple. According to the film, while she definitely struggled with the massive amounts of pain medication she was taking, she played up the slurring and messiness she became known for.
Lacey said crafty Anna Nicole was “way ahead of the game in harnessing the power of media.” After her infamous appearance honoring Kanye West at the 2004 American Music Awards, in which you could barely understand what she said, she leaned into that persona because it resulted in her phone ringing off the hook with endorsement deals and personal engagement offers.
“There’s the interview where Anna Nicole says: ‘Everybody's calling and I didn't even have to do a sex tape. Maybe I should flub a line more often,’” Macfarlane says. “You think: Wow, She really gets it. She realizes her power. And one of the things [that] surprised [us], but we were also happy to learn, was that she really was playing tabloids at their own game. She figured out how she could gain from this 24-hour scrutiny. I think she thought, 'OK, I can make this work for me'… Everybody wanted that craziness, but she was quite intentional about it.”
Even her life story took on a life of its own. Missy talked about watching her ex-love giving a TV interview. In it, she talked about childhood abuse she claimed she endured, but Missy said Anna Nicole had actually stolen Missy's personal story and passed it off as her own. (In an archival interview, her mother Virgie Mae Hogan, who died in 2018, claimed she asked her daughter why she lied so much and said she replied, "I make more money telling sad stories than I make telling good stories. Any time my name is in the news, I am making money. If it's bad, something really bad, I make 50 times the amount I make if it's good.")
“The rags to riches tale is something that we know she fed the public for quite a while before adding to it some of Missy's story,” Lacey says.
Adds Macfarlane, “I think [rags to riches backstories] always go down really well in Hollywood. I imagine you start off with a story and you embellish it and it gets more and more traction. Then it's hard to to get out of it. She definitely created a persona… She literally becomes this different person.”
But her life — and the lies she told — spiraled. At the end, she had the messy paternity scandal, claiming Larry Birkhead didn’t father Dannielynn, and her pain addiction ballooned to where she was prescribed 1,500 pills in a month. She died from an accidental overdose in a Hollywood, Fl. hotel room. The footage captured by paparazzi of first responders trying to resuscitate her as she’s wheeled to an ambulance is even more jarring today.
Others lending commentary in the film, which also details her extreme weight loss, include her bodyguard Maurice “Big Moe” Brighthaupt, the doctor who prescribed her all that medicine, Dr. Sandeep Kapoor, and friends Patrik Simpson and Pol' Atteu. However, there's no Stern, now a public defender in L.A., after felony charges against him were dropped, or Birkhead, the photographer who is raising Dannielynn, now 16. However, the filmmakers tried.
“Of course,” says Macfarlane. “They're important people in her life." She said they "had many conversations with Larry, which were very amicable. But in the end, we couldn't agree to the conditions that he had.” They also had “friendly engagement” with Stern, “but ultimately, that didn't work out.” But the story wasn't about them.
"I've always been quite interested in complicated women," Macfarlane says of her subject. "I've made films about people like Brigitte Bardot and Yoko Ono." The more she uncovered about Anna Nicole "we just thought her story is epic. It's a kind of timeless story of women and the way that they're treated and perhaps by the male gaze. We just thought that she was someone so interesting to try and unravel the truth about and present a portrait that's real and sensitive and multi-dimensional."
Anna Nicole Smith: You Don't Know Me is now streaming on Netflix.