Halloween morning 2012 dawns crystal-clear but unseasonably cold over the suburban estate north of Atlanta where “Anna Nicole” — a Lifetime original movie premiering Saturday, June 29 — is in production. Hurricane Sandy swept past the region a couple of days ago, bringing in its wake some frigid arctic gusts.
That hasn’t seemed to dim the mood on this outdoor set, however, where burly crew members, some of them heavily bearded, are sporting platinum blond wigs and fluffy pink bathrobes over large false bosoms. It’s a goofy gesture stemming partly from this costume-friendly holiday but also because of this TV movie’s title character: Anna Nicole Smith, the voluptuous starlet who dropped out of high school but became a world-famous camp icon before dying at age 39 from a massive drug overdose.
Today, director Mary Harron and her team are filming one of the happier moments from Smith’s rocky life: the day that octogenarian Texas millionaire J. Howard Marshall (Martin Landau) tells Smith (Agnes Bruckner) that he is bequeathing one of his beloved horses – and, indeed, his entire ranch – to her as an inducement to spend more time with him. While everyone off camera shivers and gulps coffee, Bruckner, wearing a midriff-baring thin cotton blouse, keeps her sunny smile intact for multiple takes of the scene, as Landau’s Marshall tenderly talks to her character as a knight would to a regal lady.
During a short break, a grinning Landau — who won an Academy Award playing horror star Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” — greets an interviewer with a friendly Halloween “Boo!” and reflects on what drew him to this project.
“You know, most people just think of him as an old geezer who picked up Anna Nicole Smith in a strip lounge, but I think he was astonishing in many ways,” the 84-year-old actor tells Zap2it. “He graduated magna cum laude from Yale as a lawyer, then when World War II broke out, Roosevelt called him in as an adviser to (Harold) Ickes in his Cabinet, because he was the most knowledgeable person on international law. After the war, he went back to Texas and made his fortune. He was a very handsome, dashing young guy back then, with a lot of smarts, and I still see that in him. He’s 89 years old, which means this is the first time in a long while that I’m playing someone who is older than I am.”
Although Marshall may have seemed to outsiders — and his own horrified son, E. Pearce Marshall, played by Cary Elwes in this TV movie — like a poster boy for the adage that there’s no fool like an old fool, Landau says his character fell in love with more than Smith’s external charms.
“Anna Nicole rejuvenates him, and I like that. He had been getting ready to cash it in,” he says. “And it wasn’t mainly on a sexual level. It was just her presence, being there, that injects life into him again. Of course, you’ve got his son, who resents any woman his father goes with, particularly one that started as a stripper. The whole thing is just a really interesting study. This man is just so much more than the object of ridicule that is how a lot of people remember him.”
Later that morning, another short break finds Bruckner huddled over a space heater in a nearby carriage house, sipping hot soup.
“I’ve been freezing, because as you can imagine, there’s not a lot of heavy clothing in this picture, but it’s such a beautiful part, I’m not complaining,” says the actress, 27. “Anna Nicole wasn’t the smartest cookie. I think she completed ninth grade before she dropped out of high school, but she had other gifts. She knew how to make men happy and have them do pretty much whatever she wanted them to, so she had that kind of relationship with J. Howard, but I also think she did have genuine feelings for him. She could see the way he looked at her and appreciated the fact that he loved her and thought she was an amazing woman.”
Bruckner, who describes herself as “pretty much a tomboy” in her off-camera life, says she had no problems finding plenty of video footage of Smith to help her research the role.
“Let’s face it, a lot of Anna Nicole’s life was on tape,” she says. “Of course, when you have your hair and makeup done and you’re in your wardrobe and wearing those huge heels, it absolutely changes the way you walk and even the way you talk, because it changes how the people around you look at you.”
The actress says she can’t help feeling extra pressure to give viewers a multifaceted look at a woman many people viewed as a sad cartoon by the time of her death.
“It’s true, she had all those reality show moments that most people remember first, but she also was a real person as well. What I’m trying to show is that she had a human, vulnerable side. Many if not most of the scenes in our movie are moments that were not caught on tape, like intimate moments with her son, Danny, or with Howard K. (Stern, her attorney, played by Adam Goldberg). I don’t want people to see only what they already know. We’re trying hard for a balance between that and the more human side.”