For much of her life in the spotlight, actress and activist Pamela Anderson has been a punchline: to the cheesecake TV hit Baywatch, then to a stolen sex tape with husband Tommy Lee, and finally to her friendship with activist publisher Julian Assange.
A new documentary, Pamela, a Love Story, hopes to reshape the world’s perception of those biographical dot points, particularly how a sex-hungry media turned a pound of flesh into a money-making and headline-generating machine.
Pamela Anderson in the documentary Pamela: a love story.Credit:Netflix
Directed by Ryan White and produced by Anderson’s son, Brandon Thomas Lee, Pamela, a Love Story ambitiously eschews boobs and Baywatch for a more substantive examination of a famous woman and a hungry film industry.
“I think Pamela, to a lot of people, to culture, to pop culture, is sex,” White told US media while promoting the documentary. “She’s been the embodiment of sexuality for so long, so the story of Pamela’s sexuality, her individual sexuality, is such a theme throughout the film because so much of that was robbed from her when she was young.
Pamela Anderson, bottom right, with the cast of Baywatch.Credit:AP
“I think Pamela challenges a lot of our preconceived notions about sexuality and femininity, and pornography, and all of these things,” White adds. “The idea that Pamela found posing in Playboy as her moment of sexual empowerment, that’s when she began to take her sexuality back from the people who had taken it away from her in her childhood and young adulthood.”
In some respects, the genesis of Anderson’s meteoric rise was an American cliché, despite the fact that it happened in Canada. She was in the audience at a football match in Vancouver and, wearing a beer-brand T-shirt, was captured by the “Jumbotron”, a camera that zooms in on the audience and relays the image to a giant screen in the stadium. The crowd cheered. Playboy called. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Anderson’s most famous role was lifeguard CJ Parker on Baywatch, the 1990s action series which followed the professional and personal lives of implausibly attractive California lifeguards. Diehard sitcom fans would also have known her for playing the Tool Time Girl on another 90s staple, Home Improvement.
In 1995, however, Anderson featured, with her husband Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, in a sex tape, which was stolen from their home and subsequently published online. An exchange of legal fire followed, and a settlement was reached with the video distribution company, IEG, but the company went bankrupt and Anderson and Lee were never compensated.
Anderson’s life, and in particular the events of 1995, were the subject of a limited series, Pam & Tommy, which was produced for the streaming platform Hulu. But that project was produced without Anderson’s consent. (For the record, the program’s producers attempted to contact her; she elected not to respond.)
Pamela Anderson with former husband Tommy Lee in 1995. The couple divorced in 1998.Credit:AP
And that point is the pivot on which Pamela, a Love Story and an accompanying book Love, Pamela, seem to sit. The question of consent. From sexual abuse in her childhood, to the wretched infamy of an internet celebrity sex tape, so much of Anderson’s story has been shaped by others.
“It’s freedom. Full disclosure,” Anderson says of making the documentary.Credit:Netflix
At a little under two hours, the documentary is an attempt to take back control of the narrative. Equal parts video memoir and home movie screening, it blends Anderson’s own reflections on her life with the contents of a cache of VHS videotape home movies unearthed at her grandmother’s farm in Canada, where the actress now resides.
“It’s tough to go through it again because you go through it again like you’re going through it for the first time,” Anderson says candidly in the documentary, while poring over her childhood journals. “It’s painful.”
Anderson talks in the film about a miscarriage she experienced during the filming of the superhero film Barb Wire in 1995. “We were just completely devastated,” she says. “I never got to deal with the grief of losing my first baby,” she adds, quoting from her own journal, written at the time. (Anderson and Lee subsequently had two sons, Brandon, born in 1996, and Dylan, born in 1997.)
Anderson attends the “Pamela, a love story” NY Special Screening at The Paris Theatre on February 1.Credit:Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Netflix
Anderson’s friendship with and ongoing support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is not part of the documentary, but it is detailed in the book, Love, Pamela. “It’s not in the [final] cut because it didn’t feel important to the story we were telling,” White says.
In 2018, Anderson clashed with former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison over Assange, when Morrison joked he had “plenty of mates” who wanted to be a special envoy, “to sort the issue out with Pamela Anderson”. Anderson replied saying his dismissal included “smutty, unnecessary comments about a woman voicing her political opinion. We all deserve better from our leaders, especially in the current environment.”
The most striking thing about the documentary is the nuance and complexity found in a life that most people have dismissed as just a quick headline, or a pin-up poster.
“I’m a little nervous,” Anderson told US media at the show’s premiere last week. “For me, it just seems a little bit self-serving. I wrote a book, and then there’s this documentary about me, and then I’m doing press about me, me, me. It’s kind of surreal.
“Of course I want people to like it, I want people to feel inspired,” Anderson adds. “I have also just really told my story. So now everybody’s going to know. It’s freedom. Full disclosure. I just hope that it’s inspiring somehow.”
Anderson and son Brandon during the filming of Pamela: A Love Story.Credit:Netflix
Much of the credit, Anderson says, belongs to her son, 26-year-old Brandon Thomas Lee, who persuaded her to the idea of giving a full and frank account of her life for the documentary. “I trust him,” Anderson says.
“She’s been a bulldog, protecting me and my brother my whole life,” Lee told US media. “I think this is a fantastic opportunity for me to step up, and be there, and get this story right. To showcase the real her.
Anderson with Brandon, in a picture used in the documentary.Credit:Netflix
“I think that there’s so much amazing stuff left inside her that she has to offer everyone,” Lee said. “I think a lot of it was robbed from her, frankly. So, I just hope that those opportunities come her way again, and we can do something special.”
Lee and Anderson attend the documentary’s premiere on January 30 in Hollywood.Credit:Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
Lee says the key to this mother’s survival is her optimism. “Her positivity. I try to look on the bright side of things, but I think if I had happen to me in my life half the things that have happened to her, I wouldn’t be so positive,” Lee says. “I think that a lot of people can learn from her.”
Pamela, a Love Story is streaming on Netflix.
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