Pamela Anderson’s story has been told three times in less than a year: in the Hulu miniseries “Pam & Tommy,” in Anderson’s newly published memoir “Love, Pamela,” and in the Netflix documentary “Pamela, A Love Story.” Even for someone who has affectionately followed her career since her Playboy/“Baywatch” heyday, this might be one or two times too many. Although unauthorized and widely denounced by her, “Pam & Tommy” touches upon almost as many of the greater tragedies and deeper sociocultural conversations her fame-slash-infamy has inspired, with the seeming aim of showing at least as much compassion for Anderson as she hopes to elicit in the latter two by reclaiming her narrative. But even as a thoughtful chronicle of the ups and downs of her life, Ryan White’s film plays slightly as a retread that amplifies the public’s love story with redemption arcs — especially for celebrities — more than it offers anything that has not already been revealed to the world.
For those who were there at least, it’s easy to remember that by the end of the 1990s, Pamela Anderson had become one of the most famous people in the world, even if largely due to the aggressive curiosity of the media about every moment of her life, good and (especially) bad. As White’s documentary opens more than two decades later (ahead of her well-received 2022 performance as Roxy in a Broadway production of “Chicago”), she’s almost happily washed up as a performer and living with her mother in Ladysmith, British Columbia after purchasing the home where she grew up. Through reams of diaries, yellow legal pads full of notes and more than a few home movies (none scandalous), she traces the line of her success from the fateful Jumbotron shot where she was discovered through her “Playboy” career, a series of high-profile romances, and the decline of personal and professional opportunities — not to mention privacy — she experienced after her sex tape with former husband Tommy Lee was stolen and sold without their permission or recompense.
White elicits information about some of the tragic, lesser-known details of her upbringing, including her parents’ volatile marriage, molestation at the hands of a babysitter and multiple sexual assaults during early adolescence, simply by listening, exemplifying the documentary’s goal (along with the memoir) of letting her tell her own story. But her candor with these incidents evidences the impact of being questioned and scrutinized for so long by so many people with so little regard for her comfort or privacy: She speaks of them matter-of-factly, and if she is still carrying a lot of deeper trauma around them, she tends to wave off the lingering sensations with the bubbly, irresistible giggle that gave her girl-next-door appeal even when she was at the peak of her fembot sexuality.
To interrogate that reaction further might have offered more unique insights about Anderson, much less the public “Pam,” than those other portraits. It’s clear she’s being as fully honest as she can be about what happened to her, how it felt and what the results were. It’s also possible, if not likely, that this merely is a reflex or a coping mechanism that has enabled her to protect herself from the media’s invasive questions and casual cruelty. (Archival footage of her fielding gross questions from the likes of Jay Leno underscores how cavalier the world was in real time about her peccadilloes as they originally unfolded.) But now that she’s 55, and especially after finally drawing raves for her acting in “Chicago,” one hopes that she’s reconciled (if not resolved) these emotional wounds in ways that make it possible for her to feel like herself.
But if the revolving door of relationships, not to mention her repeated efforts to win the adulation of the public even after she was scorned by its attention, draws a conclusion that the Hulu series did not, it’s that she is not merely a hopeless romantic but constantly, and desperately, seeking love. Though she says of Tommy Lee to their son, “I loved your dad for all of the right reasons, and I don’t think I’ve really loved anybody else,” that hasn’t stopped her from marrying five more times, including twice in 2020, during at least some of the time when she was filming the documentary. She’s hardly the first person to spend much of her life seeking stability as an adult (romantic and otherwise) that was absent from their upbringing, but where White succeeds is in establishing a clear and consistent throughline from the self-described empowerment and validation of her “plucked from obscurity” origin story to the resting place where the film begins, in her childhood home, surrounded by her sons and her parents living with her, reunited.
So if you’re disinclined to read all 256 pages of “Love, Pamela,” and on principle or happenstance never watched “Pam & Tommy,” White’s documentary details for viewers all that Anderson has gone through, while letting her reveal on her terms where she is now. Celebrated (possibly for the first time) in earnest not just for looking good, but for the work she’s doing, and having finally “fallen” for the right person — herself — “Pamela, a Love Story” suggests her complicated past is little more than a prologue to future chapters of liberation, prosperity, and self-assurance. For neatness’ sake, that’s a great place to wind up, but in a cultural landscape where comeback stories like hers are becoming an increasingly conventional narrative, “Pamela, a Love Story” serves as a reminder to appreciate these stars when they burned the most brightly instead of waiting for them to fall out of the firmament.
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