() — The word “intimate” is often used to describe celebrity documentaries, but it certainly applies to “Pamela, a Love Story,” which at one point shows Pamela Anderson lying in her bathtub while excerpts from her diaries are read as voice-over. The result is a humanizing look at a woman often reduced to a caricature, while at times feeling too conspicuously licensed.
Produced by, among others, Anderson’s son Brandon Thomas Lee, director Ryan White (whose biographical documentaries include “Ask Dr Ruth” and “Serena”) had access not only to her journals, but also to a collection of home movies, including, yes, the one that was stolen and released for the world to see, of Anderson having sex with her then-husband, the Drummer Tommy Lee.
Anderson, now 55, talks at length about that interlude, about the encroachment that it means to have private material displayed and exploited in such a way, and what he clearly sees as a reopening of those wounds with the Hulu limited series.” Pam & Tommy”, which dramatizes those events.
Anderson’s account doesn’t really detract from the Emmy-nominated production, which was quite understanding in portraying the pain she felt and the way she was treated by the media. In fact, the clips here of late-night comedians using Anderson as a joke, or of interviewers Matt Lauer and Larry King asking her about her boobs, do as much to support Hulu’s version as to undermine it.
“Pamela” makes it clear that Anderson lets her guard down early on, when she appears makeup-free, strolling through the small British Columbia town where she grew up, before being discovered at a soccer game (fans roared when she appeared on camera at the marker) and began her career as a model and in the pages of Playboy.
According to Anderson’s account, during that time she healed her sexuality, after having suffered abuse on more than one occasion as a child.
International stardom followed in “Baywatch,” and it’s fun to hear Anderson recall not only all the celebrities she dated during that period, but all the symbolism of “Running on the Beach in Slow Motion.” (There is no mention of “Home Improvement,” nor is Anderson’s recent accusations in his memoir of having seen the genitalia of leading man Tim Allen, which the comedian has denied.)
The humiliating experiences that came with that “blonde bombshell” status are well documented here. The same goes for the intrusions of the paparazzi, who hounded her especially after her whirlwind affair with Lee.
The frenzy surrounding the sex tape “solidified the caricature image” of her, recalls Anderson, adding: “I knew at that moment that my career was over.”
Although “Pamela” handles all of this quite well, the rest of the documentary reads like Anderson’s Hallmark version of the story, from the sugary, sugar-coated music to the interviews with her sons, whose protectiveness toward their mother is admirable but not especially illuminating.
The latter part of the documentary also seems a bit scattered, venturing into areas like Anderson’s animal rights activism through People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), her advocacy from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and, finally, his Broadway debut in “Chicago.”
At its best, “Pamela, a Love Story” sheds what in retrospect seems like misogynistic media coverage, obsessed with her looks and her relationships, to consider the person behind it all, while revealing a bit too determined and flexible in helping Anderson reassert ownership over his narrative.
In those moments, “Pamela” can work as a love story, but not as much as a documentary.
“Pamela, a Love Story” premieres January 31 on Netflix.