New bio-docs chronicling the lives of Michael J. Fox and Anna Nicole Smith highlight contrasting challenges, public perceptions and paths to fame with traditional chronological formats. LA Weekly reviews both.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (Apple TV+)
For most of the ‘80s and a good chunk of the ‘90s, Michael J. Fox was a dominating presence in film and television. The Family Ties and Back to the Future star’s boyish charm, insouciant comic timing, and diminutive stature made him one of the most likable actors of the era. That’s one of many reasons why the actor’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease struck such a deep nerve.
In the Apple TV+ documentary, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) lets his protagonist tell his own story. By placing a camera in front of the Canadian-born actor and simply asking him questions, Guggenheim unspools a narrative that pulls the audience into Fox’s multilayered story with a pressing intimacy. In addition to the interview, the film interweaves family photos, television interviews, dramatic recreations, scenes from Fox’s movies, and footage of his daily life with wife Tracy Pollan and their children. It creates a heartfelt mosaic of a man who refuses to be pitied even when the odds are stacked against him.
Although this “everything but the kitchen sink” approach mostly works, the film occasionally falls off the tracks by using clips of Fox’s movies to illuminate key moments in his life. There’s a particular fondness for inserting scenes from 1987’s Bright Lights, Big City to dramatize some of the actor’s more challenging career moments. If you’re familiar with that film, which is an underappreciated snapshot of a cocaine-addled writer in Manhattan, these moments feel clunky at best. One wonders why Guggenheim didn’t simply use more personal photos or footage instead.
The movie works best when Guggenheim and editor Michael Harte rely on traditional tropes of documentary storytelling, cutting between old television interviews and Fox’s current life in Manhattan where he works with his trainer, hangs out with his family, and goes to doctors’ appointments. Through it all, Fox remains unrelentingly courageous and optimistic, even as he holds off the sporadic tremors that have a decimating effect.
Fox’s origin story is one of classic Hollywood folklore. Faced with a life of working in construction, he drove to Hollywood where he exploited his “cute and elfin” looks to land supporting roles in several TV shows. Living in a single apartment, he subsisted on packets of jelly from restaurants between auditions. It’s a brutal, desperate existence that almost sends him packing his bags when he auditions for Family Ties and lands the role as Alex P. Keaton, the Republican-leaning son of former-hippy parents. A few years later, he stars in Back to the Future, which makes him a pop culture sensation.
Although Fox admits that fame has its perks, he says the foundations of being a celebrity are made of “paper” not “brick and rock,” admitting that he overworked himself to sustain an “illusion.” Then, one day in 1990, he awoke to feel his pinky finger inadvertently quivering. It was the first sign of Parkinson’s. From there, his battles were with something much greater than his public image.
Although Still is a bit messy, especially when it relies on bombastic dramatizations and movie scenes, the actor’s charisma glues it together. Even as he struggles with the disease’s symptoms, he manages to crack jokes and smile through the pain. The movie also shows how his activism shed light on Parkinson’s, which eventually persuaded politicians and the public at large to invest in finding a cure, which hasn’t happened yet. For all his heroism and fame, Fox comes off as a grounded, self-effacing class act who constantly reminds us that the key to happiness is gratitude.
Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me (Netflix)
While Still merely touched on the precarious nature of fame, Netflix’s Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me pulls you into the deep and dark recesses of celebrity culture. Both a searing portrait of a lost soul and a cautionary tale of the American Dream gone awry, director Ursula Macfarlane’s (Untouchable) examination of the life and early death of Vickie Lynn Hogan, also known as model and actress Anna Nicole Smith, doesn’t pull any punches in immersing us into the uglier side of stardom.
Harshly scrutinized by the paparazzi and the public during her rise and subsequent fall from grace, You Don’t Know Me follows in the footsteps of other recent documentaries which have reexamined misunderstood public figures like Brittany Spears, Pamela Anderson and Whitney Houston. Like those documentaries, Macfarlane has a more compassionate and objective approach, while revealing why her heroine took a turn down a desolate path that led to her death of an accidental prescription drug overdose at 39 years old.
Without a narrator in sight, Anna Nicole’s life is depicted through never-before-seen videos, media interviews, and news footage. Macfarlane also documents Smith’s story in a linear fashion, which is a relief since so many recent documentaries seem to have a sporadic style, which seem to speak more to the filmmakers’ egos than their subjects. This is a classy, traditionally spun, but insightful portrait of an authentic and charming ingenue who was blinded by the bright lights of Hollywood.
Born in an impoverished suburb of Houston, Texas, Vickie Lynn Hogan always dreamed of becoming a celebrity. Primarily raised by her mother before being sent to live with her aunt in Mexia, Texas, she rebelled against every authority figure before dropping out of high school. She got married at seventeen to a boy she worked with at a chicken shack. They had a son, Daniel Wayne Smith, before separating a year later. From there, she was determined to become famous.
After working as a stripper while raising her son in Dallas, she was discovered by Playboy magazine in 1992. Changing her name to Anna Nicole Smith, fame came quick and intense. Landing Playmate of the Year in 1993, Smith eventually replaced Claudia Schiffer as a more full-figured, mainstay model for Guess. She also got small parts in a few movies like The Hudsucker Proxy and the third Naked Gun comedy. Smith was considered one of the most enticing and sexy public figures to grace billboards and magazine covers in years. She also became tabloid fodder due to her exuberant personality, a series of romantic trysts, and her marriage to 87-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall.
Although Macfarlane covers all the bases regarding Smith’s personal life, her main concern seems to be with Hollywood’s tendency to sacrifice its darlings. One moment you feel like a shining star, the next minute you’re a public joke. Unfortunately, this witty, original and intelligent girl from Texas bought the lie wholesale. After a series of maladies, including a well-documented hearing to secure her husband’s fortunes and an unflattering reality show, Anna Nicole simply quit fighting to be defined by her image, and ultimately lost her life.
Tonally, the movie feels overwhelming, even stifling at times. A threatening undertone seeps through the narrative; we can feel the end looming near. At times, you want to save Anna Nicole and tell her to get out while she still can. For that alone, Macfarlane has made a very compelling portrait of a celebrity-driven universe where the stakes were higher than anyone ever knew.
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