There's a growing belief that television is the more gracious champion of today's cinematic voices. The movie studios aren't looking for originality, imagination, or obsessions that may warrant a big screen treatment. So filmmakers are flocking to cable to develop scripts, shoot movies, and dabble in one-off guest gigs that invigorate their work (i.e. Frank Darabont's time on "The Shield" sounded like a religious experience).
The first half of 2013 is treasure trove of evidence: Soderbergh retreated to HBO for "Beyond the Candelabra," David Fincher found a home at Netflix for his adaptation of "House of Cards," and Jane Campion raised the bar for the mini-series format with her Sundance Channel procedural "Top of the Lake." But the homes of these projects are recognizably boutique. It's not until a channel without that credibility plays host to a prestigious director that TV starts looking like a real safe haven for auteurs.
Enter: "Anna Nicole," the latest Lifetime Original Movie, helmed by "American Psycho" and "I Shot Andy Warhol" director Mary Harron.
At first glance, Harron's Anne Nicole Smith biopic looks like the usual Lifetime schlocky melodrama full of drug abuse, soft core sex, and ridiculous twists ("SHE WAS AMISH?!"). The iconography of Smith's life lends itself to the Lifetime aesthetic — as evidenced in the trailer, quick cutting, camera sound effects, and a moody pop song easily turn Anne Nicole Smith's life story into drama worthy of "Liz & Dick."
"The Anna Nicole Story" could have been another movie off the network's conveyor belt. No one who tuned in would have batted an eye (and, perhaps, the movie would have more buzz) if it was a campy, exploitive interpretation of Nicole's life. Yet with Harron, Lifetime finds a credible and sensitive filmmaker, able to elevate the material and mine its dramatic potential. They may not be HBO or AMC or Sundance or FX, but with "Anna Nicole," Lifetime realizes the potential of their brand. Deal in celebrity-driven tearjerkers, but make them good. With movie studios dropping the ball, there's a window of opportunity for television and even unlikely brands like Lifetime are seizing it.
Life her film "The Notorious Betty Page," Harron examines the seductive qualities of fame on a woman at her lowest point. In her early days, Anna Nicole was Vickie Lynn, a young girl stuck in rural Texas with an emotionally abrasive mother and no one to rescue her. She fantasized about being Marilyn Monroe — literally, she is continually visited by the future "Anna Nicole" version of herself. It's a dreamlike flourish Harron has utilized in the past. In her twenties, Lynn turns to stripping to make a buck. It's then she meets J. Howard Marshall, the 80-year-old oil tycoon who vows to take care of Lynn. With his support, the Texas girl with big dreams transforms into Anna Nicole Smith, Playboy model, actress, reality show star, 39-year-old mother of two who watched a son die from overdose before meeting her own drug-related end.
Harron, who has struggled to mount projects in Hollywood and been the victim of recent negative reviews (reactions to her 2011 film "The Moth Diaries" were less than favorable, while still praising Harron's skills), is let loose on "Anna Nicole." There's an identifiable style to the movie — Harron once again employs abstract camera techniques and flashy production design, all to balance a tone that can contain Smith's wild, near-comedic lifestyle and the darkest moments in her history. The movie is clearly limited by its television movie budget, but there's filmmaker behind it with an eye for making the story engrossing. Actress Agnes Bruckner is great casting — she never lampoons Smith, even when drugged out of her mind and caked with clown makeup. Even more riveting is Martin Landau as J. Howard Marshall, who convinces us why the elderly benefactor was more than a sugar daddy for Smith. He's spry, warm, and every bit as complex as Harron's version of Bettie Page.
What's lacking in major motion pictures that can be found in Lifetime's ripped-from-the-headlines biopic — and the best of modern television — is specificity. Lifetime appeals to a large audience, but it has a narrow line of sight on what material works and who can execute it. In The New York Times' recent dissection of the blockbuster scene, Hollywood focus group data collector Kevin Goetz explained that, “If you try to appeal to everyone, you will end up appealing to no one.” By recruiting Harron to helm "Anna Nicole," Lifetime finds a director who appeals to their point of view while bringing an artfulness rarely found in their slate.
That potential is hard to see in the well-regarded cable titans — what qualifies as an HBO movie? But like ESPN's documentary pursuits or History Channel's über-successful "Hatfields & McCoys" mini-series, niche filmmaking — and a director-driven approach to crafting that material — is proving lucrative. A movie like "The Notorious Betty Page" could fit the Lifetime bill, as long as the producers were comfortable with it being a "Lifetime Original Movie." With "The Anna Nicole Story," Harron dispels the stigma of that label. It's a quality film — the type you can only find on television these days.