Photo courtesy Mary Herron
Mary Herron has plenty of what you might call “cred”—she wrote for Punk magazine in the 70s, created feminist classics like I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page, and, most famously, directed the movie adaptation of American Psycho that made everyone who considered Bret Easton Ellis a sexist monster realize, Oh, shit! That book is actually a really good critique of women-hating Wall Street assholes. Her latest project seems like a departure from all those “serious” works of art—a biopic for the notoriously schmaltzy Lifetime network, of all places, about the famously large-boobed reality-TV mess Anna Nicole Smith.
Based on the 2011 New York magazine story “Paw Paw and Lady Love,” Anna Nicole follows the most famous gold-digger of all time as she goes from Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken to the E! channel to her death at a Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida, and features a great cast—Academy Award–winner Martin Landau stars as J. Howard Marshall, Anna Nicole’s ancient, Crypt-Keeper-esque oil baron husband, and Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen plays Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mom. (Agnes Bruckner, who’s mostly done TV work, got the title role.)
Harron hopes the film will make audiences see made-for-TV melodramas as a vehicle to discuss serious issues and also realize Anna Nicole Smith was more complicated and self-aware than we think.
Over the weekend, I spoke to Mary via Skype and email about how to convince a respected actor to play a dying oil baron in love with a stripper, the sexist reasons we mock Lifetime movies, and how Anna Nicole could legitimize Lifetime the way House of Cards made Netflix a go-to destination for original programming.
VICE: I guess I’ll start with the obvious question, which is how did you end up directing a Lifetime movie about Anna Nicole Smith?
Mary Harron: It’s a good subject for me, actually. It’s in the same ballpark as the other things I’ve done. Most of the scripts I get, [I think], This isn’t right for me. And this felt like, Oh, yeah, I could do this. It’s not my script, obviously. If I had written it, it probably would have been a little bit darker and have less public appeal. But I thought it was an interesting script. It wasn’t like a normal TV script—it was kind of wild. It was very ambitious. It had a sense of humor, which I liked. I was like, “Yeah, bring it on.”
So you weren’t turned off by it being a biopic for Lifetime?
I’m attracted to things that have stigmas. I’m also interested in the forms that people look down on. People look down on biopics—my first film was a biopic. You could say that American Psycho is a kind of slasher movie, one of the most despised forms. And people [look down on] melodrama. Why is [female melodrama] looked down on, and other things are cool? Forms that are looked down on like female melodrama have a lot of energy in them—tons of people watch Lifetime movies!
Production still from Anna Nicole_. Photo by Bob Mahoney, © Lifetime 2013_
Yeah, I know. I love them.
And whatever you can say about them, they’re not boring. I don’t normally do melodrama. I’m normally criticized for being too restrained. So it was kind of fun for me to go into something that’s so over the top.
Do you think that the stigma surrounding Lifetime movies results from Lifetime producing movies for women about women that are directed by women?
Yes, I do—although there aren’t many directed by women because there aren’t that many female directors. They’re about women, for women. There are boy TV movies that don’t have that stigma at all. Somehow, in pop culture, the thing that people look down on most is female stuff.
Was it easy to convince Martin Landau and Virginia Madsen to star in the movie?
Actors are always looking for great roles. Martin had done research into J. Howard and was really intrigued by him—he was this really distinguished guy who graduated magna cum laude from Yale and was an unofficial member of Roosevelt's war cabinet. He felt that J. Howard had lost all desire to live; when he met Anna she brought him back to life. For Virginia, her concern was that we would let her do a real physical transformation—she didn't want to be her glamorous self. Both of them were amazing and really dived into their roles.
Production still from _Anna Nicole. Photo by Bob Mahoney, © Lifetime 2013_
Anna Nicole's cousin Shelly and lesbian assistant Kim have become camp icons in their own right. Did you exclude Shelly and Kim from the movie because their camp appeal would hinder the film's seriousness?
I love those characters. If we had done something that just focused on the years of the reality show—which I have to say would make a great film—they would definitely have been included. But there just wasn't time in this version.
Did you consider Anna Nicole a gold-digger or a poor girl with a dream?
Well she was both, wasn't she? I don't think she would have been with J. Howard Marshall if he had been poor, but on the other hand there was real affection between them. She had grown up poor and feeling ignored and neglected, and he was like an adoring grandpa who wanted to give her everything she wanted. He liked her ambition too, and they kind of understood each other.
You’ve called this story a tragedy. What’s Anna Nicole’s fatal flaw?
She let her addiction to fame overwhelm her responsibilities as a mother. I think it was the reality show that either killed Danny [Anna Nicole’s son] or started his destruction. It was a terrible thing to do to a sensitive teenager. He had to quit school because the other kids tormented him about it. Not only was she being presented as a grotesque on national television, but he was made to be in the show too. In the end it destroyed both of them, because I think it was his death that killed her.
Although your Anna Nicole is a bad mother, she’s also smart and easy to sympathize with. Was she smarter than people normally give her credit for being?
She was dumb like a fox, kind of like Marilyn Monroe. I think she had an amazing drive. She went from working at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken to being one of the most famous women in the world—she did it herself. She had a great instinct for attracting attention, and intuitively she understood the media. She was irrepressible. If Danny hadn't died, she'd still be at it, creating more tabloid scandal, doing infomercials, and being on Dancing with the Stars.
Production still from _Anna Nicole. Photo by Bob Mahoney, © Lifetime 2013_
But do you think it’s wrong for girls to aspire to become Playboy centerfolds? With this and The Notorious Bettie Page, you’ve directed two films about Playmates.
Remember, Anna was already working in a strip club in Houston—so posing for Playboy was definitely a step up. I can't say I'd want my daughters to pose for Playboy, but I can see why it would appeal to someone with no resources who was trying to make her way in the world.
Is she a victim or a feminist icon, like your other two biopic subjects?
I don't think she's a feminist icon, and she's not a simple victim. She's something unclassifiable and very modern, with this career created by new media: supermarket tabloids, reality television, and social media.
You were born in Canada, spent your childhood in America and Europe, and attended Oxford. What draws you to Americana instead of European or Canadian subject matter?
My dad is an actor and a comedian and my first step-mom was a Hollywood starlet. I spent time in Los Angeles as a kid. I was sort of interested in the workings of celebrities.
What do you think all your old punk rock friends would say about your movies?
I still see them! They’re all very nice about them.
Recently, other art-house directors have created movies based on tabloid culture—most notably Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. Why do you think so many artists are turning to trash culture for inspiration?
We always did, in a way. [But with movies about pop culture you’re able] to get financing and an audience—yet you’re also doing something interesting and are able to say the kind of things you’re always saying. It’s a chance to do something more in the mainstream. You don’t want to be ghettoized. It seems risky in a way, because it’s not what people expect—but I find it exciting.
Anna Nicole premieres on Lifetime on June 29 at 8 PM EST. You can watch the trailer below:
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