Ever watched Brit­ney Ever After’ and felt zero pangs of guilt?

Philippa Snow investigates the thrilling ingredients of Lifetime’s campy, celebrity downfall biopics.

Four scenes I have recent­ly watched in film biopics, equal­ly matched in melo­dra­ma, and equal­ly tinged with camp: a young gold dig­ger wear­ing a white wed­ding dress to her nona­ge­nar­i­an sug­ar daddy’s funer­al, howl­ing a sin­is­ter a capel­la ver­sion of The Wind Beneath My Wings with her kid son; a dying actress in the show­er, held pietà-like by her dis­rep­utable hus­band and her can­cer-strick­en moth­er, killed by pills and tox­ic LA mould; a pop star in an obvi­ous, coal-black wig, dis­traught and crouch­ing on Mul­hol­land Dri­ve, hold­ing her York­shire ter­ri­er and beg­ging for the mer­cy of a hun­gry crowd of paparazzi; the wife of a mur­dered hus­band, stoned with grief, peel­ing a pair of flim­sy and ensan­guined stock­ings down her calves before retir­ing to bed, like Lady Mac­beth in a can­dy pink design­er suit.

The first three vignettes are from Life­time movies about Anna Nicole Smith, Brit­tany Mur­phy and Brit­ney Spears, respec­tive­ly. The last is from direc­tor Pablo Larraín’s 2016 film about the bereave­ment and sub­se­quent qui­et and crack­ling mad­ness of Jacque­line Jack­ie” Kennedy, a legit­i­mate biopic as close to some­thing made by Life­time in its affect as it is fea­si­ble for some­thing of its pedi­gree to be. (It helps that Jack­ie, as played by Natal­ie Port­man, has the air of a Jacque­line Kennedy imper­son­ator, the real Kennedy’s hau­teur exag­ger­at­ed into some­thing clos­er to pas­tiche.) All four appear too steeped in sym­bol­ism and emo­tion­al excess to be drawn direct­ly from life, mak­ing it wild that Smith actu­al­ly wore her wed­ding dress to the 90-year-old J Howard Marshall’s funer­al, that Mur­phy real­ly died from a mix­ture of lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive tox­i­c­i­ty, that Spears real­ly per­mit­ted her­self to be pho­tographed curb­side at night in LA, unkempt and afraid, and that Jacque­line Kennedy wore her blood-spat­tered bouclé suit to sign in Lyn­don John­son as the President.

Truth can be ham­mi­er than fic­tion, mak­ing biopics about very spe­cif­ic kinds of women dif­fi­cult to sell in Hol­ly­wood, and eas­i­er to make for tele­vi­sion. Jack­ie, nom­i­nat­ed for three Oscars and described as com­pelling,” intel­li­gent,” and mes­mer­ic” by crit­ics, is a notable excep­tion whose curi­ous, fleet­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty with straight male com­men­ta­tors cir­ca 2016’s awards sea­son did not quite dis­prove the rule.

The Anna Nicole Sto­ry (2013)

I love Jack­ie,” the pro­duc­er Marie Bar­di tweet­ed recent­ly. But I also like that my boyfriend hates Jack­ie. Some things (espe­cial­ly things about women) feel so per­son­al to me that it seems disin­gen­u­ous when straight guys try to voice their support…I also don’t need straight guys to val­i­date” camp or melo­dra­ma, either.” 

Peo­ple [look down on] melo­dra­ma,” the direc­tor Mary Har­ron echoed, in an inter­view with Vice about her deci­sion to work with Life­time on The Anna Nicole Sto­ry. Why is [female melo­dra­ma] looked down on, and oth­er things are cool? Forms that are looked down on like female melo­dra­ma have a lot of ener­gy in them – tons of peo­ple watch Life­time movies!” 

As a pop cul­ture tril­o­gy, The Anna Nicole Sto­ry (2013) and The Brit­tany Mur­phy Sto­ry (2014), both of which doc­u­ment­ed the down­fall and the sub­se­quent death of young, famous women, and Brit­ney Ever After (2017) – which chron­i­cled the down­fall of the still-liv­ing Spears with lit­tle enough care that it seems halfway pos­si­ble its writ­ers believed she actu­al­ly did die in 2007 – cre­ate some­thing like a sub­genre: that of the lo-fi biopic devot­ed to a woman who is notable not because of her sin­gu­lar or super­nat­ur­al tal­ent, but because of the explo­sive com­bi­na­tion of her every­woman charm, and her extrav­a­gant and lethal or near-lethal suffering. 

Brit­ney Spears is a con­sum­mate pop star; Brit­tany Mur­phy was an actress good enough that Roger Ebert believed her to be the mod­ern Lucille Ball; and Anna Nicole Smith was an extra­or­di­nary beau­ty. Still, each of them had her own flaws, her own ten­den­cy towards eat­ing bad food, lov­ing bad men, hav­ing bad skin. Each had been the girl next door, in Kent­wood, in Atlanta, and in Hous­ton. Each remained a woman you could pic­ture wait­ress­ing, work­ing in a strip club or the office of a tele­mar­keter, but bet­ter, blonder: pol­ished like a Cadil­lac, as eager to please as a des­per­ate child. None of them was Jack­ie Bou­vi­er, bred like a race­horse to mar­ry a pres­i­dent and then the ship­ping heir Ari Onas­sis, which may explain why their biogra­phies do not make Oscar bait.

The Anna Nicole Sto­ry (2013)

It is pos­si­ble to argue that there is no bet­ter medi­um for doc­u­ment­ing this spe­cif­ic brand of fame and pre­ma­ture death than the Life­time movie, with its flat­ten­ing approach to dia­logue and its haute camp visu­al style. In Life­time movies, peo­ple speak in plat­i­tudes as sim­ple as the ones they use in gos­sip mag­a­zines, so to call what’s said on screen fore­shad­ow­ing” feels as much of an under­state­ment as describ­ing Anna Nicole Smith as bux­om”. (She was a 36DD.) In an ear­ly scene in Brit­ney Ever After, Britney’s man­ag­er tells her to smile, like I’m dream­ing about boys, but I’m sav­ing myself for Jesus.’” In The Brit­tany Mur­phy Sto­ry, a paparazzi pho­tog­ra­ph­er asks Murphy’s hus­band who exact­ly killed Brit­tany Mur­phy, and he answers: You did.” Like an InTouch cov­er fab­ri­cat­ing quotes from anony­mous sources broad enough that they are able to sur­vive with­out cita­tion, all three screen­plays leave no room for audi­ences to expe­ri­ence rev­e­la­tion. Oper­at­ic in their tragedy and adver­tise­ment-like in their con­veyance of a strict, tra­di­tion­al code of moral­i­ty, they have the emp­ty, sick-mak­ing appeal of junk food.

In the case of Brit­ney Ever After, the most notable omis­sion in the movie comes as a direct result of the sec­ond-most notable omis­sion: over a run­time of 120 min­utes, not one track by Brit­ney Spears plays, a con­se­quence of her refusal to contribut[e] in any way, shape, or form…or [give] her bless­ing” to the film’s retelling of her life. What results is a film cen­tred around some­one who does not resem­ble Spears, who does not dance like Spears, and who is nev­er seen to sing a note of Spears’ music, the effect one of uncan­ny dis­tance from our actu­al plan­et. Here is an alter­nate uni­verse in which Brit­ney is a gan­g­ly Aus­tralian, in which there is no …Baby, One More Time, or Tox­ic. It may be an alter­nate uni­verse, too, where Brit­ney Spears’ life is authored by Ten­nessee Williams. (“Ah don’t want mah baby wearin’ no damn hook­er clothes!” her father rages, the Louisiana heat of him threat­en­ing to detonate.) 

Some­times I wake up in the morn­ing,” the un-Spears of Brit­ney Ever After says, about her 2007 break­down, and think that every­thing that hap­pened last year was a dream, or some­thing. And I feel relieved. But then I realise that it was all real. Every­thing just got all…smashed up.” As the nar­ra­tive is in her mind, so it is in her movie: real life, already appear­ing dream­like and at a remove, is recon­fig­ured into some­thing that is at once alien and familiar.

Brit­ney Ever After (2017)

And isn’t the fame por­trayed in these biopics both alien and famil­iar, too? Wit­ness the ascent of Brit­tany Mur­phy in The Brit­tany Mur­phy Sto­ry, the least inter­est­ing and most gener­ic of what might be called the channel’s Perez Hilton Tril­o­gy: her rise to star­dom feels pre­des­tined only because there is no mys­tery in the out­come. To see the real Brit­tany Mur­phy in her first audi­tion may have been to wit­ness mag­ic – to iden­ti­fy what Ebert called a kind of divine inep­ti­tude,” a dizzy lov­abil­i­ty” – but the mag­ic does not trans­fer here, mak­ing the suc­cess of the fic­tion­al Mur­phy seem more luck than fate. Mak­ing a film about a com­ic actress this self-seri­ous, devoid of any humour, is at least a lit­tle fun­ny. In most Life­time movies, there are instances of mor­dant wit, even in times of heavy dra­ma. Brit­ney Spears, decid­ing to leave Kevin Fed­er­line, is shown inform­ing him of her deci­sion with a text-mes­sage that says, per­fect­ly, I WNT 2 DVRCE U”. It would be an hon­our,” Anna Nicole’s lawyer-and-then-lover Howard K. Stern tells her, watch­ing shrimp fall from her slack­ened mouth at din­ner in an upscale restau­rant, to rep­re­sent you.” 

If I’d writ­ten [The Anna Nicole Sto­ry],” Har­ron admit­ted, in that inter­view with Vice, it prob­a­bly would have been a lit­tle bit dark­er and have less pub­lic appeal. But I thought it was an inter­est­ing script. It wasn’t like a nor­mal TV script – it was kind of wild. It was very ambi­tious. It had a sense of humour, which I liked.” 

Press around The Anna Nicole Sto­ry tend­ed to reit­er­ate the director’s con­nec­tion with anoth­er char­ac­ter as psy­cho, all-Amer­i­can and in love with the cap­i­tal­ist dream as Anna Nicole Smith, the fic­tion­al killer of women and invest­ment banker, Patrick Bate­man. Har­ron had begun her career with a biopic of the SCUM Man­i­festo author Valerie Solanas, mak­ing the pro­gres­sion from a would-be-killer of the male sex to a destroy­er of the female sex a lat­er­al move. In Smith, the direc­tor has squared the cir­cle with a maneater, a vic­tim of the male gaze with an eye for mon­etis­ing her desir­abil­i­ty until it killed her. 

There’s a thou­sand peo­ple I could try to blame,” Smith mono­logues in voiceover, in the back of a lim­ou­sine and speed­ing towards death. Howard K. Stern for putting me on that stu­pid real­i­ty show. My mama, for not let­ting me go bowl­ing. My dad, for knock­ing down doors he shouldn’t have. E. Prick [Howard Marshall’s son, E. Pierce] for being a prick. I could try point­ing a fin­ger at Hefn­er for found­ing Play­boy, or Let­ter­man for mock­ing me. Kodak for mak­ing a cam­era. The doc­tors who pre­scribed all the pills I took. I’d love to call them all guilty. Let myself off the hook. But if I’m look­ing for the real cul­prit for what I let hap­pen to my own flesh and blood, mirror’s where I got to begin, mid­dle and end.” 

The Brit­tany Mur­phy Sto­ry (2014)

It is hard not to think of Patrick Bate­man, whose exhaus­tive beau­ty rou­tine neces­si­tates a great deal of time spent with the bath­room mir­ror, and whose capac­i­ty for self-reflec­tion extends only to the real­i­sa­tion that there is no there there. There is an idea of a Patrick Bate­man,” Har­ron has him drone over a shot in Amer­i­can Psy­cho where he peels off a lit­er­al mask, some kind of abstrac­tion, but there is no real me, only an enti­ty, some­thing illu­so­ry, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh grip­ping you and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are prob­a­bly com­pa­ra­ble: I sim­ply am not there.” The prob­lem with women like Anna Nicole Smith and Brit­ney Spears, and to a less­er extent with an actress as atyp­i­cal and real” as Brit­tany Mur­phy, is that they even­tu­al­ly prove too there, not illu­so­ry enough. 

In The Brit­tany Mur­phy Sto­ry, Murphy’s inabil­i­ty to be as slen­der as her co-stars with­out pills is her undo­ing. In The Anna Nicole Sto­ry, it is Smith’s unhinged com­mit­ment to being the inter­na­tion­al celebri­ty and balls-to-the-wall par­ty girl Anna Nicole Smith” that makes her first too much for pub­lic life, and then too much to live. The Brit­ney Spears of Brit­ney Ever After ruins her untouched and untouch­able pub­lic image for the sake of men who tell her she’s da bomb,” or have the nick­name meat­pole,” or who have noth­ing at all in com­mon with her oth­er than being from Kent­wood, and remind­ing her of home. 

These kinds of tragedies do not pos­sess the great, epoch-defin­ing arcs that make a biopic about a John­ny Cash, a Judy Gar­land or a Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, but are instead full of the minor-key vicis­si­tudes suf­fered by reg­u­lar civil­ian girls, plus fame. Life­time, whose bread and but­ter is in mak­ing hor­ror movies for the moth­ers of sub­ur­ban, way­ward daugh­ters, have suc­ceed­ed in pro­duc­ing three new clas­sics of the genre: too fat,” too full of love or lust, too loud and too out­classed by peers who did not come from Queens or from the trail­er park, these women’s famous names do not entire­ly dis­tin­guish them from the pro­tag­o­nists of Moth­er, May I Sleep With Dan­ger?, or Fif­teen and Preg­nant, or Too Young To Die. Each star was first made famous by a kind of catalysing coup de foudre, first on the behalf of some male pro­duc­er or exec­u­tive, then on the behalf of Amer­i­ca itself, the bloom rapid­ly wear­ing off the rose in the way that blooms tend to do. In each case, an enti­ty, some­thing illu­so­ry” remains; the liv­ing girl behind it either dies, or fades away so that it is no longer sim­ple to dis­cern what is illu­so­ry, and what is real.

Brit­ney Ever After (2017)

It is equal­ly dif­fi­cult to tell in Lifetime’s biopics what real­ness” means, the sto­ry­lines ripped from the head­lines, and the stag­ing far­ci­cal enough to keep us guess­ing. I had to look up whether Spears real­ly began her ill-fat­ed per­for­mance at the VMAs in 2007 with the words if you’re look­ing for trouble/​look right in my face,” but obvi­ous­ly she did – truth, as well as being both ham­mi­er and stranger than mere fic­tion, is also some­times more iron­ic, too much to bear with­out the veneer of bad cam­er­a­work or obvi­ous dia­logue. In Brit­ney Ever After, that appear­ance at the VMAs plays out on what resem­bles a ten-foot-by-ten-foot plat­form, bare­ly reg­is­ter­ing as more than a local tal­ent show. In the real clip, Spears is so evi­dent­ly on a huge stage, and per­haps on some­thing else besides. There is a cut­away, not long into the song, to the face of Rihan­na in the audi­ence: she looks at Brit­ney, smil­ing her encour­age­ment, but in her eyes there is a note of such ten­der­ness, such dis­tress. There will not be a Life­time film about Rihan­na; even Chris Brown could not make it so. She is unflat­ten­able, too cool and too unlike us to be a trag­ic every­girl, and too suc­cess­ful to be anybody’s cau­tion­ary tale. Rihan­na will earn a real biopic, or live a life that nev­er ends up being filmed at all.

As it hap­pens, in a Twit­ter Q&A in 2013, Brit­ney Spears was asked which actress she would most like to por­tray her in a movie, and instead of choos­ing some­one blonde and bub­bly and hyper-het­ero­sex­u­al­ly hot – Scar­lett Johans­son, say, or Mar­got Rob­bie – she sur­prised her fans by say­ing that she’d like to be played by Jack­ie Kennedy her­self, Natal­ie Port­man. Per­haps Spears had seen her appear in Black Swan in 2010, as a woman dri­ven to destroy her­self by the desire to per­form, or in Leon: The Pro­fes­sion­al at 12, a sweet Loli­ta char­ac­ter whose pro­to-sex­u­al sub­text turned out to be less sub” than it first appeared. She may have recalled the time that the two tried out for the same off-Broad­way play, a camp farce about a 10-year-old girl ready to com­mit mur­der in the name of mak­ing it as a singing and danc­ing star. It is hard not to won­der whether, last year, she end­ed up see­ing Vox Lux, a ter­ror­ism-meets-pop pseu­do biopic by a mil­len­ni­al direc­tor, Brady Corbett.

When peo­ple talk about the ear­ly part of the new cen­tu­ry,” Cor­bett mused to The Scots­man, I think that they are going to talk about school shoot­ings, ter­ror­ism, 911 and, in equal mea­sure, they will talk about Brit­ney Spears.” Vox Lux’s pop star, drug-addict­ed and as fer­al as a car­toon hill­bil­ly, is played by – duh – Natal­ie Port­man. They want­ed a show,” she tells her man­ag­er, lazi­ly, in the film. I gave them a show.” This line of dia­logue is, it has only occurred to me now, the per­fect strapline for a Life­time biopic.

00:00 / 00:00