Pamela Anderson is not listed as a producer of the new Netflix documentary Pamela, a love story, and she makes it clear, more than once, that she has no intention of ever watching the finished product. And yet director Ryan White, whose feel-good NASA doc Good Night Oppy recently debuted on Amazon Prime Video, has completed what feels like a job-for-hire. Years ago, the noble classes hired artists to paint their portraits. Now they open up their past for documentarians and the results end up on streaming services instead of hanging in the dining room. And they come across looking beautiful.
This isn't to say that Pamela, a love story isn't watchable. Pamela Anderson is a fascinating person. Well, let me rephrase that: Pamela Anderson's life is fascinating. If it were written in a book, some might call it far-fetched. She grew up on a tiny island off the coast of Vancouver and ended up one of the most famous people on the planet. Sure, she was a television star, but she secured her position in the history books mostly for having her privacy violated. It's a fundamentally tragic story, and the woman has been through a lot; if the Pamela we see today in Pamela, a love story is even half true, one simply must respect her perseverance.
Her childhood was tough. She had an alcoholic father and a free-spirited mother who kept coming back to him despite many separations. After high school, she took trips to "the mainland," and, while at a Canadian football game, the cameraman found her in the crowd and put her up on the Jumbotron. Having her image presented for all to see was fate.
She was brought down during the halftime show to interact with the crowd, and next thing you know she's doing photo shoots for Labatt beer. This led to an invitation to pose for Playboy. She flew to Los Angeles and, essentially, never left. Some hair dye and surgical enhancements later, she was cast as C.J. Parker for five seasons of Baywatch, also known as "Babewatch" (or "Boywatch"), and became something of an international phenomenon: a throwback to blonde bombshells like Mamie Van Doren or Jayne Mansfield.
Throughout her life, Anderson kept diaries, and White has an actress read excerpts throughout the film. Her early years in Hollywood are a triumphant whirl, especially coming out of the genuine horrors in her youth. As a child, she was repeatedly molested by a babysitter. (What's more, the young Anderson prayed that her abuser would die, and then she got in a car accident and did just that, saddling young Pamela with confusing guilt.) When she was 12 she was raped at a friend's house and kept it all to herself. Harnessing her sexuality for photoshoots and cheesy aquatic television felt liberating and empowering. For the first time in her life, she was confident and happy.
After reflecting (kindly) on a string of famous ex-boyfriends from the comfort of her couch in a white robe and no makeup, she gets to the part about the love of her life, rock drummer Tommy Lee. She tells the odd story of how, after a quick meeting, he kinda chased her to a shoot in Cancún, they partied for a night, and suddenly they got married. Though the circumstances were unorthodox (on her wedding day she thought his real name was Tommy Lee Jones, and he had to say, "No, that's another guy") their passion for one another seemed genuine.
The years have only made the tale of "The Pam and Tommy Sex Tape" seem stranger. I still can't wrap my head around how someone could have their property stolen, then someone else could buy it and make a profit. But that is what happened. Some of the facts as presented here are not exactly backed up by cursory research (she claims they still don't know who did it, but there is a suspect). However, Anderson insists that she never saw any money from the settlement she made with an early internet pornography distributor.
She claims she walked away from pursuing a lawsuit because it was too much stress for her (I believe it), and she was pregnant with her second child. She had already miscarried once before, when working two jobs (Baywatch and Barb Wire), plus living the "I am Pamela Anderson married to Tommy Lee" life proved too much. Fearing a second such complication, she walked away.
Added pressures from the paparazzi are kinda-sorta presented as context for Tommy Lee's incidents of domestic abuse. Anderson doesn't excuse him, but doesn't condemn him, either. All these years later, she's simply sad about how their relationship ultimately collapsed, and, despite many marriages and divorces since, she says she's never had another true romance.
There are plenty of formidable examples of how fame's spotlight can ruin a life. (The 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary Amy is among the best out there.) I can't say that Pamela, a love story is an essential addition to the canon, but it did make me think about this very famous woman in a different light. There were times in her life when, in order to continue to work, she was forced to lean into the painful joke her life had become — she was a porno star now, even if she never intended to be, so she had to grin and bear it. You watch this and feel infuriated.
The documentary concludes with her recent triumphant run in Chicago on Broadway. Though she did, indeed, get solid reviews, it wasn't exactly a box office success like the documentary presents it as. But Ryan White needed an upbeat ending… whether Anderson was watching or not.
Premieres: Tuesday, Jan. 31 on Netflix
Who's in it: Pamela Anderson
Who's behind it: Ryan White (director)
For fans of: The perils of fame