The word “Intimate” is frequently used when describing celebrity documentaries, but it certainly applies to “Pamela, a love story,” which at one point shows Pamela Anderson lounging in the bathtub as portions of her diaries are read as voiceover. The result is a humanizing look at a woman often reduced to cartoon caricature, while occasionally feeling too conspicuously like a licensed product.
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 diaries but a collection of home movies – including, yes, the one stolen and posted for the world to see, of Anderson having sex with her then-husband, drummer Tommy Lee.
Anderson, now 55, speaks at length of that interlude, the invasiveness of having private material shown and exploited in that fashion, and what she clearly sees as a reopening of those wounds with Hulu’s limited series “Pam & Tommy,” which dramatized those events.
Anderson’s account actually does little to detract from that Emmy-nominated production, which was quite sympathetic in portraying the hurt she felt and the way the media treated her. Indeed, the clips presented here of late-night comics cashing in on Anderson as a punchline, or interviewers Matt Lauer and Larry King asking her about her breasts, do as much to endorse the Hulu version as undermine it.
“Pamela” makes clear that Anderson is letting her guard down right from the outset, as she appears makeup-free, hanging out in the small British Columbia town where she grew up, before getting discovered at a football game (fans “oohed” when she appeared on the scoreboard camera) launched her as a model and into the pages of Playboy.
As Anderson tells it, during that time she reclaimed her sexuality, having experienced abuse on more than one occasion as a child.
International stardom on “Baywatch” followed, and it’s amusing to hear Anderson reminisce not only about all the celebrities she dated during that stretch, but the whole “Running on the beach in slow motion” imagery. (There’s no mention of “Home Improvement,” or Anderson’s recent allegations in her memoir of being flashed by its star, Tim Allen, which the comic has denied.)
The indignities of that “blond bombshell” status are nicely documented here. Ditto for the intrusions of the paparazzi, who dogged her particularly after the whirlwind romance with Lee.
The feeding frenzy surrounding the sex tape “solidified the cartoon image” of her, Anderson recalls, adding, “I knew at that point my career was over.”
While “Pamela” handles all of that quite well, too much of the rest of it plays like the Hallmark Card version of Anderson’s story, from the cloying, saccharine music to the interviews with her sons, whose protectiveness toward their mother is admirable but not especially enlightening.
The last part of the documentary also feels a bit scattered, venturing into areas like Anderson’s animal-rights activism through PETA, her advocacy for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and, finally, her Broadway debut in “Chicago.”
At its best, “Pamela, a love story” strips away what in hindsight looks like misogynistic media coverage – obsessed with her looks and relationships – to consider the person behind all of that, while proving a little too determined and pliable in the goal of helping Anderson assert ownership over her narrative.
At those moments, “Pamela” might work as a love story, but it fares a little less well as a documentary.
“Pamela, a love story” premieres January 31 on Netflix.