Ryan White’s documentary Pamela, A Love Story tries to undo falsehoods and put into proper context the tragedies, scandals, and successes of one of the most misunderstood and underestimated celebrities in pop culture history. A deep dive into the life of Playboy playmate turned television star Pamela Anderson, White’s latest gives his subject an unfettered, unfussy platform with which to tell their own story, and the results are warm and gently eye opening. Divorced from tabloid headlines of years gone by and conflicting narratives, B.C. native Anderson finally gets a chance to share her side of the story without having words put in her mouth.
From being discovered at a CFL game to the quiet life she currently leads, Anderson controls her narrative throughout Pamela, A Love Story, but there isn’t much that’s off limits. There are some things that Anderson doesn’t want to spend a lot of time dwelling on (being the victim of spousal abuse, her connection to Julian Assange), but she also doesn’t ignore anything, either. Much like the person she was at the height of her fame, Anderson knows what her audience came to see, and the least she can do is oblige them with her take on events and the price of celebrity.
White (Ask Dr. Ruth, Good Night Oppy) makes sure Anderson is the only focus of his documentary. Outside of brief contributions from her parents and sons, Pamela Anderson is the only interview subject in White’s film that’s seen or heard from outside of context granting archival materials. The decision could be seen as one sided, but Pamela, A Love Story remains a richly detailed experience because Anderson has been extensively and exhaustively chronicling her daily life for decades.
Anderson has rigorously kept journals, notes, and home movies as reminders and documents of the life she has led. When she was married to Tommy Lee, Anderson recalls that they filmed pretty much everything they ever did together (which, as many already know, also proved to be a major speed bump for their partnership). White helps Anderson assemble her thoughts across a timeline and without the sensationalism that often coloured how the actress was portrayed in the media. Understandably, Anderson unearths some journal entries and videos that she can’t bring herself to watch, even going as far as saying she’ll probably never watch White’s documentary in its entirety. And yet, Anderson is willing to be vulnerable and share these moments with a larger audience because she has perpetually been a pop culture figure that has given more to the world than she has gotten back from it.
Anderson was once one of the top line stars of Baywatch, one of the biggest television series in the world at the height of its unlikely popularity, but it was never the sort of project that could lend her any artistic credibility. She has been married and divorced several times in her life, but Anderson will never escape the infamy of her relationship with drummer Tommy Lee, which birthed a landmark sex tape and legal battle that still scars her name today. The scandal of said sex tape bolstered Lee’s image as a rock star bad boy, but essentially cratered Anderson’s acting career. Even as recently as a couple of years ago when a critically acclaimed and commercially successful limited series was made about the Pam and Tommy scandal – produced without any input from Anderson – those old traumas refused to fade away and are reinvigorated by all of the unwanted attention.
Pamela, A Love Story, is a portrait of a proud woman with a traumatic past doing her best to get by and recover. For decades now, Pamela Anderson has been stuck in a moment of infamy that she can’t escape, and robbed of any platform to get her story out or even the ability to move past traumas that happened before the sex tape (being sexually abused by a baby sitter as a child, a miscarriage that took a big toll). Whenever she appears on talk shows, all anyone wants to talk about are scandals, sex, and boobs, and her clear exhaustion with those topics can be seen in all sorts of uncomfortable archival footage that’s trotted out by White and his team of editors and researchers. By being so up front, gregarious, and self-aware, Anderson proves herself more than worthy of the win this documentary provides. Pamela, A Love Story offers a pop cultural counterpoint that’s long overdue, and Anderson deserves a lot of credit for coming forward and sharing a warts and all view of a life no one other than herself will ever understand. And White deserves a commendable amount of credit for assembling it all and largely staying out of his subject’s way.
Pamela, A Love Story streams on Netflix starting Tuesday, January 31, 2023.
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