'Pam & Tommy': The Celebrity Sex Tape That Changed Everything
Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee's tape—news of which first trickled out in 1996, and which was released to massive bootleg sales and online piracy by 1997—is the "Citizen Kane" of celebrity sex tapes. Everything we understand about celebrity sexuality and privacy (or lack thereof) flows from those 54 minutes.
And I should know: I illegally downloaded the video on Napster in the late '90s as a kid on my family's dial-up modem, and it was worth every minute of the seemingly eternal wait.
As a sex tape, it's genuinely sweet
Director Craig Gillespie of Hulu's new limited series "Pam & Tommy" (created by "The Wrestler" writer Robert Siegel) clearly knows the enormity (in, uh, more ways than one) of the real-life material that he's fictionalizing. The "I, Tonya" filmmaker helms the first three episodes of the eight-part biographical drama, which premiered Wednesday and is based on an extensive 2014 feature article in the magazine Rolling Stone.
But where 2017's movie "I, Tonya" found radical empathy in Tonya Harding's Olympic figure skating scandal, Gillespie misunderstands what makes Pam and Tommy's story so unforgettable. The couple met, fell in love and married all in the space of four days, and then trained a camcorder on their unapologetic mooniness and horniness. Instead, he turns them into cartoonish emblems.
Though it was never meant to be public, Pam and Tommy's honeymoon home video—stolen and disseminated to the world by a disgruntled carpenter played here by Seth Rogen, the cast's most famous star (and most notably an executive producer)—was bound to ignite the public's imagination. The intimacy of their video is stunning even now, long after we've watched the stagier porny escapades of Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Colin Farrell and (regrettably) Fred Durst and Hulk Hogan.
Anderson artfully zooms in on Lee's abdominal MAYHEM tattoo, drinking in her man. The "lovers," as they call each other, get busy on a boat that almost hits a rock (literally).
Celebrities are decidedly not like us, but with their tape, they briefly gave us the illusion that they could love and live and screw just a bit like the rest of us (bodily assets aside).
"He's gotta get me through the rest of my life," Anderson says as she cradles her new husband's penis, in a moment of hilarious yet sledgehammering dramatic irony. Above all else, what makes the Pam and Tommy video so distinctive is how genuinely sweet it is.
Of course, we can't wrap our collective heads around Anderson and Lee's careers or the avalanche of private-blurring-into-public celebrity culture that followed their tape changing our worlds without first understanding what made them tick as both individuals and a couple. But, at least in the first few episodes, Gillespie seems more interested in a standard cocky rock star rise-and-fall narrative.
Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier from the Marvel movies) is severely miscast as Lee, playing him with the demonic energy of a frontman like Axl Rose rather than with the bashfulness, even awkwardness, of the Mötley Crüe drummer, the least scintillating band role. (Yes, Lee did attempt a solo music career in the early 2000s. It went nowhere.)
A better insight into Lee's unique brand of physically outsize and psychologically inward comes from watching him charmingly try to make it through his pre-written dick jokes in the Comedy Central roast of Anderson. Lily James (who you may know from playing the part of Debora in the movie "Baby Driver") does a better job of aping "Baywatch" fantasy Anderson's look and put-on ditziness, but neither actor reveals much beyond the amusing surface.
Funny and extreme in the wrong way
Pam and Tommy are funny, but not because they tried to be. Celebrities are decidedly not like us, but with their tape, they briefly gave us the illusion that they could love and live and screw just a bit like the rest of us (bodily assets aside).
"Pam & Tommy" imports tropes from an entirely different story. Here, Lee approaches Rogen's worker holding a gun with a maniacal laugh that's far from the real Lee's persona in interviews and appearances, even if the event follows factual contours, including that Lee was allegedly abusive. Elsewhere, Rogen's over-the-top, lewd humor enters where it just doesn't fit, as in one painful scene featuring Lee having a conversation with his talking animatronic dick. The real Tommy barely had the courage to pan his videocam to his sizable genitals however much they pleased his wife at the time.
That's because Tommy was never Axl Rose or Bret Michaels or Dave Navarro. He was more, well, Travis Barker, currently a member of the rock band Blink-182, another drummer with a romantic and sexual history and complicated relationship to fame worthy of a biopic.
In the years since Pam and Tommy's sex tape, stars and would-be stars have taken a cue to attempt to repeat that tabloid sensation, but the results often seen forced and meticulously maneuvered. Even Kim Kardashian now makes fun of her own boring, sterile, though ultimately successful, sex tape with the timing of a pro comic, having long rehearsed her lines with the exacting help of momager Kris Jenner.
Pam and Tommy didn't have that kind of cutthroat hustle, contrary to the extreme antics of the TV show "Pam & Tommy." Yes, they were hot and silly and misguided and very, very famous. But they were also gentle, loving and surprisingly soulful, even while aggressively penetrating on a rockbound boat in a moment of deep sensuality only they can ever fully comprehend.
And that's why so much of the celebrity sexual overshare culture we now ingest misses the mark—and why, all these years later, we still can't look away from Pam and Tommy.