Anna Nicole Smith Netflix Doc Claims Her Tragic Life Story Was a Fraud

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Hollywood has never not been eager to explore the lives of sad, glamorous women. But the past few years in television and film especially have seen a boom in charitable retellings—what Vulture writer Kathyrn VanArendonk calls “empathy tourism”—aiming to humanize mistreated starlets and re-contextualize their sexist portrayals by the media. It was only a matter of time before one of pop culture’s biggest cautionary tales was given an opportunity for reappraisal—again.

A new Netflix documentary titled Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me, out this week, attempts to shed new light on Smith’s iconic downfall from one of the most desired women in the world to a depressed, financially needy drug addict. The film is less an indictment of ’90s and early 2000s tabloid culture and more of a clichéd character study of a Marilyn Monroe-esque figure. After years of documentaries, news specials, and even an opera anatomizing her larger-than-life persona since she died of an accidental drug overdose in 2007, this film can’t help but feel extremely redundant.

However, You Don’t Know Me manages to expose two shocking revelations about the former Playboy Playmate, both involving Smith’s now-deceased parents. The debunking of a claim about her mother, specifically, is a confusing effort to offer Smith more complexity. But its placement in the film only calls into question the intent of the film’s director, Ursula MacFarlane, and how she wants the audience to remember Smith.

Smith’s impoverished upbringing in Houston and later Mexia, Texas— before she dropped high school and married at age 17—was a crucial part of the rag-to-riches story she often professed to the media. It’s a highly regurgitated factoid that Smith’s family was so poor that she would have to steal toilet paper from gas stations and wore extra layers of clothes in her house during the winter. Her backstory was also defined by an absentee father and alleged child abuse at the hands of her mother.

In the documentary, though, her relatives and a former close friend argue that her childhood wasn’t nearly as rough as she made it out to be.

Early in the film, Smith’s former friend and lover named Missy, who she met while they were both strippers in Houston, mentions the stories she and Smith exchanged about their childhoods.

“She told me about Virgie, her mother,” Missy says. “She was in law enforcement, and she was kind of a tyrant. She would handcuff her to the bed for days and just beat her mercilessly. And I’m buying a lot of what she’s telling me. You know, I don’t have any reason to disbelieve her.”

Missy’s suggestion that Smith fabricated her claims is left untouched until the very end of the chronological film. In fact, you almost forget about the remark until we see a televised interview, saved for the end of the documentary, where she’s asked about her mother.

“You want to hear all the things [my mother] did to me?” Smith replies, visibly aggravated. “All the things she let my [stepfather] do to me or let my brother do to me or my sister? All the beatings and the whippings and rape? That’s my mother.”

The film then cuts back to Missy, who claims Smith was appropriating facts from her tumultuous childhood and that Virgie “[came] to her rescue over and over” throughout her life. After her death in 2007, Arthur claimed that she and her daughter had a fractured relationship due to her drug addiction. One of Smith’s brothers, Donald Hart, also says in an interview that their mother “did not abuse” Smith. “My mother was a very sweet, loving person,” he asserts.

We then see a never-before-heard interview from Arthur claiming that their family lived a “moderate life” in a house “with three bedrooms and two carports.” She also says that Smith told her rather bluntly that she made up her claims of abuse for her own financial gain.

“I make more money telling sad stories than I make telling good stories,” she claims Smith said to her. “If it’s bad, something really bad, I make 50 times the amount of money I make if it’s good.” When Arthur asked Smith why she didn’t want people to know good things about her, she says Smith responded, “not if bad pays better.”

Admittedly, this conclusion puts viewers in an uncomfortable position after sympathizing with Smith for two hours. Presumably, this revelation is meant to highlight her underappreciated, possibly dangerous level of savviness. The documentary seems to imply that she was complicit in her own mythology and not solely a victim of the public’s imagination. Primarily though, the teasing of this information early on in the film—and the circling back to it at the end—feels like a trick to keep people engaged in a movie that has nothing new or insightful to say.

Anna Nicole Smith and Donald Hogan.

Courtesy of Netflix

Along with Smith’s allegedly false claims, the documentary drops another bombshell involving her father Donald Hogan, who died in 2009, maybe to offer some balance after discrediting her other claims.

The doc shows exclusive footage of Smith meeting Hogan and one of her other brothers, Donnie, for the first time around 1993 after hiring a private investigator to seek them out. The clips portray a quiet, friendly man who’s proud of his daughter’s accomplishments, but their reunion apparently ended on a stomach-churning note.

“When we were alone, [Smith] told me her father had tried to have sex with her,” Missy says in the film. “It was really sad because I know how happy she was when she met him. She had all of these ideas in her head of what he was like, and what it was going to be like. And then she was just so, so disappointed.”

Donnie learns this information on-camera during his talking head and initially denies the allegation before changing his tune. “That would be like him,” he says, hesitantly. “I wouldn’t put it past him. It could be true.” Later, he admits that his father “was not the type of guy you want to be alone with,” recounting the time he admitted to him that he raped his wife’s sister. By now, though, Hogan’s record of sexual abuse is well-known.

Hogan’s attempted assault of Smith is hardly surprising in a documentary that’s only interested in retelling the saddest parts of Smith’s life, with the occasional side note that she was smarter than the public perceived her.

The biggest issue with this film, though, is that it lacks a unique point of view. It’s almost as if the subtitle You Don’t Know Me is less of an entry point into uncovering the hidden parts of her personality and more of an assertion that she’ll always remain an enigma, one we can’t stop trying to solve out of our unhealthy obsession with tragic women like herself.


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