Larry Birkhead says Anna Nicole Smith documentary 'is not exactly high-end journalism' (exclusive)
Larry Birkhead was cautiously hopeful that Netflix's Anna Nicole Smith documentary would do justice to the late star — like other recent pop culture explorations reconsidering famous women. To say he's disappointed by the end result is an understatement.
The day it was released, Birkhead — who did not participate in the project— called the film about his 16-year-old daughter's mother a "cesspool" and he elaborated in an exclusive interview with Yahoo Entertainment. To him, it's yet another thing exploiting the Guess and Playboy model, who died from an accidental drug overdose in 2007, when it could have been an important corrective to the record. In his eyes, it doesn't just hurt Anna Nicole, but also their daughter.
To be clear, Birkhead didn't expect Anna Nicole's life would somehow be rewritten like a Disney-esque fantasy — where suddenly the tabloid star's struggles and scandals were erased. However, a pitch sent out by producers, which Yahoo has reviewed, promised the project would be a "non-judgmental" story that would "restore dignity" to Smith, a victim of "society's thirst for celebrity" culture, and he feels they fell very, very short. Birkhead also takes issue with some commentators in the film, including people who he says "never met me" making "false and defamatory" statements about not just him but his relationship, which he felt "go unchallenged" by filmmakers.
"None of the people that commented on my relationship with Anna Nicole played a role in her life the entire 2.5 years I dated her," he says.
Netflix didn't respond to Yahoo Entertainment's request for comment.
Those giving their takes include Pol' Atteu, a clothing designer for Anna Nicole, who has an established negative history with Birkhead, opining about how Anna Nicole "couldn't stand" Larry. Mitchell Olson, a reality TV star who appeared on an episode of The Anna Nicole Show, suggested knowledge that Anna Nicole's relationship with Birkhead was transactional — like he was there to father her baby and have no part in raising it. Olson also claimed he had first-hand knowledge that the couple never shared a bedroom. Finally, Kevin Smith, a tabloid journalist, speculated that a "lightbulb went off" in Birkhead's head when the photographer met Anna Nicole at a Kentucky Derby gala in May 2004, thinking a relationship "could be quite lucrative."
"One made a dress or two," he says of Atteu. "One never even was in Anna’s home in the entire time I dated her" of Olson. "Another, that never met me is giving speculation about what he thought went through my head when I met Anna Nicole. This is not exactly high-end journalism."
Birkhead continues, "A couple of the individuals speaking about me are retaliating due to the fact that we have had to police Anna Nicole's stolen property over the years from so-called 'friends.'" (Dannielynn inherited the entirety of her mother's estate, which as her guardian he oversees.)
For his part, Birkhead did listen to the project pitch by director Ursula Macfarlane, who previously made films about Brigitte Bardot and Yoko Ono, and her team, hoping that the film would be one narrative he'd be proud to show Dannielynn one day.
He says Macfarlane's team made "multiple attempts to woo me by paying compliments to me about how 'important' my relationship with Anna would be to this documentary and what a 'great father' I am."
Yahoo obtained a copy of such pitch — not sent to Birkhead, but someone else — about appearing in the film. It said, "With heart and soul, this ambitious documentary will restore dignity and do justice to one of the most misunderstood American women of our time. We aim to present a non-judgemental portrait of Anna Nicole, telling a bigger story about our society's thirst for celebrity, and the way in which we love beautiful young women, only to mistreat them at any and every slight misstep."
However, reviews of the film point to its own exploitation, as the film claims Anna Nicole's father tried to have sex with her when she was an adult as well as details a purported same-sex romance she had with a friend. Variety's review noted, "This exploration and would-be exoneration of Anna Nicole Smith’s tragic life becomes the kind of exploitation it seeks to condemn." The New York Times's said, "The solemn excavation of Smith's life and death — she died at 39 of a drug overdose, in 2007 — ultimately brings the movie, despite Macfarlane's well-meaning efforts, squarely into the territory of what it’s attempting to condemn: lurid voyeurism."
Birkhead says it became apparent to him as production progressed — and he became aware of who had signed on, knowing all the players in the circus that was his ex-girlfriend's life, and other factors — that he wouldn't participate or share materials from the estate or his personal archives for it. He says he then felt a shift in the narrative.
"It's obvious that since we didn't participate, the producer/director's tone changed by then deciding to allow people to say false and defamatory things about me and my relationship with Anna and let these statements go unchallenged," he says.
Further, he adds, "None of the producers reached out to me for comment, as promised, prior to the airing of these statements. These are the same individuals who put in writing that this project would be 'something Dannielynn would be proud of.' Dannielynn will never see this project, however our attorney will."
When Yahoo previously spoke with Macfarlane about the documentary and asked if Birkhead had been asked to appear, she said "of course," but while they "had many conversations" which were "very amicable ... in the end, we couldn't agree to the conditions that he had."
Of these conditions, Birkhead says, "My main issue was with the credibility of the participants and making sure after multiple promises from previous productions that some of these individuals wouldn't be included."
While Birkhead declines to delve into these or further issues with the film, leaving that to his lawyer, he says he couldn't allow the narrative that he was just some sperm donor go unchecked. He says he's never tried to portray his relationship with Anna Nicole as a fairytale, but it wasn't at all what is shown on-screen.
You know, it could have been this great love story," Birkhead says. "But to be honest, I was against the odds, because I had entourages and hangers-on and people all around Anna. So it was a difficult type thing. But it wasn't like we were Ike and Tina Turner. We were not Prince Charming and Cinderella either. It was one of these things where it was in-between. We had our moments, We had a two-and-a half-year-relationship. To see people try to reduce that down for a profit or a gain is just ridiculous. Something that you really wouldn't expect from a so-called high-end production on Netflix."
He's long thought about doing his own project, after so many negative narratives. That wasn't a secret to the filmmakers for this doc either, as both he individually as a photographer and the estate possess tons of footage and photos and memorabilia of the iconic blonde bombshell.
"I look forward to, in a project, being able to lay out all of the archives," Birkhead says. "A vast amount of the stuff has to do with my relationship with Anna that people have never heard and seen. So it's going to be interesting when people actually see that and go, 'Oh, my God, we were suckered.'"
However, "First and foremost, it's more important for my daughter to see some of those videos than it is anybody else" because her mother has long been a punching bag, he says. "She was basically trashed and vilified [including in a documentary] that sought out to humanize her and to show a positive portrayal of a lady that was supposed to be misunderstood, according to the director."
He continues, "I think they've failed their own mission. Somewhere along the line, someone aborted the actual mission and that's unfortunate for Anna, her fans and my daughter."
As for him seeing dollar signs when he met Anna Nicole — while working taking photographs at the Derby 19 years ago — Birkhead says she actually pursued him after they met. Footage from the Derby gala showed her obvious interest, but he says he was surprised to get an invite to photograph her at Camp Kindle, which helped children that were impacted by HIV, shortly after they met. He was touched by her charitable side, something not showcased in the Netflix documentary.
"So if anything, Anna chased me and offered me an opportunity despite the [film's] claims that I was looking for opportunity" to cash in, he says.
As for how he protects Dannielynn from all of this, he says, "Well, honestly, she's known since she was little that people make up stories and lies about mom. We've walked past magazines and they've said just the most outlandish things. So I've told her early on that people are incentivized by making up stories for different reasons and that there are a lot of bad people out there that will say bad things about her mom.
"But also ... it's not really part of her everyday life," says Birkhead, who has sheltered his daughter, taking her away from the limelight to grow up and making often just annual appearances at the derby gala. "She didn't know her mother. She knows what people say about her mother. She also knows that people say bad things about her."