Through a post-MeToo lens, the Nineties seem like a pretty shitty time to have been a woman – particularly a woman in the public eye. The Monica Lewinsky scandal (in which the then fiftysomething leader of the free world had an affair with a 22-year-old unpaid intern) ushered in an open season on women.
Slut shaming – on a global scale, upheld by a new 24-hour news cycle – became the norm, and Lewinsky was the ‘patient zero’ for the viral age. Elsewhere, Playboy was at the peak of its sleazy powers, while, closer to home, lads mags dominated the cultural landscape. And yet, our nostalgia for that era shows little sign of abating.
Thus, Pamela Anderson, the decade’s most iconic (and most vilified) actress, finds herself in the midst of a renaissance – and if Netflix’s new documentary Pamela, a love story, is anything to go by, she’s not particularly thrilled about it.
The idea behind Pamela, a love story, is that Anderson is given free reign to tell her story in her own words. As we discover, she is a prodigious documentarian, who kept journals throughout her life and made boxes and boxes of home videos – all of which the Netflix documentary makers had access to.
Through interviews with Anderson, diary entries (narrated by an actor) and home video footage, we get the view from the inside – from her upbringing in the tiny town of Ladysmith, British Columbia to her days as a Playboy cover star, to meeting Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee (a four-day, ecstasy-fuelled bender which ended with them getting married on a beach in Mexico), through the stolen tape furore and into the wilderness years that followed. It’s quite the ride, and the film does a brilliant job ofshowing the joy as well as the misery.
In fact, the documentary – like Anderson herself – doesn’t shy away from the salacious fun and bleached-teeth dazzle of Nineties Hollywood; thanks to her role in Baywatch, by the middle of the decade Anderson had become one of the most famous women in the world – the Monroe of the 1990s.
She dated prodigiously, including Dean Cain (aka Superman) and mega-dreamy Baywatch co-star Kelly Slater. Indeed, she was with Slater when she got married to Lee. One particularly brilliant part of the documentary is when she explains how Slater was her first phone call when she got off the flight from Mexico. She’d been due to meet his parents the following week, “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I got married’”.
Sylvester Stallone offered her “a condo and a Porsche and to be his number one girl”. She demurred, “I was like, ‘Does that mean there’s number two?’” (Stallone has since denied he ever said this). It’s so gloriously frothy and Nineties, it’s impossible not to be entertained.
Which is how the documentary resists becoming a straightforward victim narrative. It’s a deft trick given that, fairly early on you learn that Anderson was sexually abused by her babysitter as a child, and then raped by an older man at the age 12. These deeply sad revelations are the setting for everything that comes afterwards.
Modelling for Playboy was her way of reclaiming ownership of her body, but it’s a short lived reclamation given that the tape of her and Lee (private property, stolen from their house), was made public just a few years later.
Watching the documentary, you cannot help but feel the deep injustice of it and you can’t help but ask yourself, how could we – as a society – haven taken it all so lightly? Why was Anderson allowed to become the butt of the joke? Of course, they’re all questions without answers, because that was then, and morals were different.
Bringing it up to the present day, after HULU decided to dramatise the story of the stolen tape in the Pam & Tommy miniseries (in which Lily James plays Pam) you see the toll it takes on Anderson.
What the documentary gently asks you to consider is: given everything she’s been through, is rehashing the story of the stolen tape for the sake of entertainment actually a form of complicity? To sate our need for nostalgia, we are retraumatising Anderson while also patting ourselves on the back for ‘correcting the narrative’ by presenting her as the victim this time around. It’s clear she would rather it all just stayed in the past but even so many years later, she isn’t really given that choice.
Pamela, a love story is a damning indictment on the treatment of women both then and now – and a brilliant insight into Anderson’s character. It’s also fun and entertaining to watch. It’s Anderson’s story, told by her, in her words – finally.
Pamela, a love story will stream on Netflix from January 31