Netflix’s documentary about Pamela Anderson wants to wrongfoot us from the start. The very first thing we see is the Baywatch star digging out an old VHS tape, telling us she’s nervous to watch it. Wait, she’s not…? Not that one… Surely not. And… no! Obviously not! The Nineties queen of Playboy turned sometime political activist isn’t about to revisit the stolen sex tape that blew up her life at the height of her fame. Instead, she’s looking at old home videos in which Tommy Lee, her now ex-husband, proposes marriage (famously just four days after they first met).  

The story Ryan White’s film – Pamela, A Love Story – wants to tell us is about a star who has always subverted expectations. From the frank answers she gives to endless sleazy talk show hosts, to her latter day campaigning, Anderson is a celebrity who has always been a bit smarter than people want to believe, often just that one little step ahead. We find her back at home in Canada, makeup-free, hanging out with her mum and her kids. She’s recently divorced for the fifth time – she had wanted to try “normal”, clearly it wasn’t for her – and has been going through old diaries and video tapes. “I’m looking for a feeling I can’t find,” she tells us.

It’s unsurprising that Anderson has found herself often battling to secure her sense of self. In clips from old talk shows appearances, a host – always male – asks her, “Why are people so obsessed with your sex life?” Her reply is matter of fact: “Maybe the tape had something to do with it.” As Anderson spools back to her coming-of-age in the first half of the documentary, she talks about being molested by her babysitter, and later raped as a teenager. There was the cultural fixation on “my boobs and my boyfriends” as she puts it, the earth-shattering sex tape theft, and the end of her marriage to Tommy Lee after he was imprisoned for beating her.   

The impetus for this film, as well as the forthcoming memoir, seems to have been the Disney Plus series Pam and Tommy – to Anderson, another instance of having her life and image taken without permission, while others profited and she was left contending with the resurfaced traumatic memories. But there is little of that anger here. The tone is gentle, thoughtful, homespun. Celebrities wanting to reclaim their narratives no longer feels quite so radical with streamers willing to pay them lots of money to do so, but Pamela, A Love Story is particularly compelling given that Anderson seems more interested in the process of making it than the end result. She offers her diaries to the filmmaker, but won’t read them out on camera – she admits she doesn’t even know if she’ll watch the documentary once its made. I found myself moved by her lack of self-interest.   

Anderson comes across as a sympathetic woman who is far more complex than many would give her credit for; White has succeeded in giving us a candid Pammy who has the power to surprise us. After the early abuse she experienced, she admits that she found doing Playboy empowering; it gave her a sense of ownership over her own body again. A feminist like me, instinctively against the sexual objectification of women, can’t dismiss her feelings about that. And she’s endearingly knowing about her career choices – a typical director’s cue on Baywatch, she says, would be, “Pretend it’s real… Action!” There are also plenty of double-take, “I can’t believe that was actually allowed to happen” moments. Like when Anderson discusses making her flop movie Barbed Wire while she was pregnant. In an interview from the time, she explained she’d been told, “‘We know you’re pregnant, but you still have to kickbox in a corset and work 18 hours a day. And I said, ‘OK, I can do this.’” The next moment, stories break of Anderson’s miscarriage.  

Why should it be so surprising to us that Anderson is clever, that she “loves words”, as she writes in an early diary? It’s fairly obvious as soon as we start to whizz through images from her modelling era. She has a breathtaking, Botticellian beauty – she is everything we have been taught epitomises female physical perfection. That the gatekeepers of culture have never stopped wanting to objectify her, own her, or destroy her is the most cliched and obvious form of sexism that there is. Pamela, A Love Story may not feel particularly revelatory, but its sheer pathos is undeniable. Oh, and how can you not love a story where the moment of redemption involves getting the lead role in the musical Chicago? Anderson is not going to do the thing we expect her to do anymore; she’s just going to do the thing she wants to do. 

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