The Pamela Anderson we meet in Pamela: A Love Story (Netflix, streaming from Tuesday) couldn’t be further removed from the Baywatch star who blazed brightly and controversially through the 1990s. She is softly spoken, goes without make-up and breaks into tears as she recalls her doomed marriage to the “bad boy” rocker Tommy Lee.
The documentary’s director, Ryan White, also makes clear that Anderson continues to process a number of deep and debilitating traumas. She recalls being abused as a child – she prayed for her attacker to die and was then traumatised all over again when they perished in a car crash the following day. Then came the abuse the entire world saw when an intimate tape recorded with Lee was stolen from their house and distributed using an obscure new computer network called the internet.
[ Pamela Anderson: ‘After the sex tape it wasn’t like I was attracting men who had the best of intentions’ ]
White interviews Anderson in her family home in rural Vancouver, in Canada. She wears a white dressing gown, pads around in her stockings and requests a break whenever the subject matter becomes too painful. She is haunted, in particular, by her separation from Lee, from whom she filed for divorce after he became violent.
But White’s astute and restrained film is as much a portrait of the 1990s as of Anderson today. We revisit the horrific misogyny to which she was subjected. She was never going to be the next Meryl Streep, but Anderson had screen presence and could hold a scene. All the press wanted to ask about was her appearance.
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And then came the sex tape – which fuelled a thousand creepy talkshow monologues. Old footage shows Anderson trying to remain calm as male presenters leer in her face. Nobody wanted to blame Tommy. He was a rock star. That’s what they did. Anderson’s career was over.
“Why do they hate me?” she wonders of that time. “Why do these grown men hate me?”
Anderson’s sons, Brandon and Dylan, are protective of their mother. “I would just flush with anger,” says Dylan, recalling schoolyard taunts about the sex tape. They are understandably angry and upset – as is Anderson – when Disney tries to cash in on the controversy with its Pam & Tommy miniseries, which repeated the sins of the past by painting Anderson as a vapid naif.
“I blocked that stolen tape out of my life in order to survive, and now that it’s all coming up again I feel sick,” she says. “It gives me nightmares. I didn’t sleep at all last night.”
There is no denying she’s had a complicated romantic life. Married six times, Anderson says she has never come to terms with her break-up from Lee. There are obvious parallels with Britney Spears, another small-town girl whose tribulations became a public sport – fuelled by the media, eagerly devoured around the world.
There is, though, a happy ending of sorts. In the documentary’s final third we learn that Anderson has been cast in a Broadway revival of Chicago. She’s great in the part, too: it turns out the larger-than-life energy that made her such a sensation on Baywatch three decades ago is perfect for musical theatre.
She’s lived a big, dramatic life and has been treated dreadfully. But with this film she is finally given a voice. What she has to say is a great deal more insightful than anything in the appalling Pam & Tommy.