The Notorious Bettie Page

Studio: HBO Films; A Picturehouse Release
Directed by: Mary Harron; Written by: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner; Starring: Gretchen Mol, Lili Taylor, Chris Bauer, Sarah Paulson and David Strathairn

Apr 07, 2006 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Annie Leibovitz’s cover photograph of Gretchen Mol for the September 1998 issue of Vanity Fair caused a minor stir when it hit the stands that fall. Not only did the form-hugging Alberta Ferretti dress worn by Mol reveal more than the typical Playboy cover, but the 25-year-old actress’s most prominent movie role to that date was as Michael Madsen’s girlfriend in Donnie Brasco (1997). So it was little surprise that the Vanity Fair cover prompted even avid moviegoers to ask, “Who’s Gretchen Mol?”

The magazine pegged Mol as a potential ‘It’ girl on the assumption that her soon-to-be-seen performances alongside Matt Damon in Rounders and Leonardo DiCaprio in Woody Allen’s Celebrity would elevate her to star-in-the-making status. But those films failed to sustain much of a buzz after their release, and needless to say Mol never became a box office draw; her next appearance in a Woody Allen film, Sweet and Lowdown (1999), was a bit part and, aside from a noteworthy supporting performance on both stage and screen in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things (2003), Mol has worked mostly in television since then.

The pivotal scene in Mol’s star turn as ‘50s pinup and fetish model Bettie Page occurs when Bettie first poses nude for a photographer. The two are situated in an isolated, woodsy area of New York, with the afternoon sun shining down upon Bettie. The young photographer clumsily offers logistical comments that he hopes, without asking her directly, will persuade Bettie to consider removing her bikini. His strategy works, but when Bettie verbalizes what’s being hinted at and follows through with such gleeful abandon, basking topless and bottomless in the warm daylight, the photographer is as shocked as he is delighted and awkwardly instructs her to cover her private parts.

That Mol gets luminously naked in The Notorious Bettie Page, the best role of her, till now, steady but unspectacular career, perpetuates one of the enduring double standards in Hollywood: even among the small pool of well-written and coveted roles available to movie actors, women still reveal more skin than men. Knowing this, writer-director Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) takes care in addressing the implications of nude photography and its effects on its subjects in the film. And like her character, who unabashedly stretches out her body for the camera bare among the trees, Mol blossoms and glows in this film, at last matching the heat of the Leibovitz photo on screen and visibly relishing every moment of her lead performance. Bettie's Southern charm, introspective self-consciousness, bemused naivete, perky physicality and pursed-lipped sauciness in front of the lens all are accomplished by Mol with equally unwavering ardor. 

Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner opted to depict Page’s years as a working model rather than attempt a life-spanning biopic. Bettie is introduced, in smoky black and white (photographed by Mott Hupfel) in a pan-up from her feet as she waits to appear before a Senate subcommittee investigating the influence of bondage-themed pornography on adolescents. In the hours leading up to her testimony, Bettie reflects on her journey from Nashville to the courthouse.


Growing up in a churchgoing household, Bettie earns a reputation as a girl whose mother won't let her date. Later in the film, we learn that, if not for missing an art class because she was rehearsing for a school play, Bettie would have been valedictorian of her class and earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt. Instead, she marries young to her first husband and suffers domestic abuse before leaving him. She also survives an ugly run-in with some town boys before moving to New York to pursue acting, while also placing in the occasional beauty contest. On a Coney Island beach she is approached by Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll), a police officer and part-time photographer who asks her to model on spot. Before long Bettie agrees to pose in his private studio, where he suggests that a haircut with bangs (the real Page’s trademark) will frame her face better.


Bettie proves to be a game and charismatic subject and her photos begin to appear on postcards and in numerous mens’ magazines; with each photographer’s referral comes more risque and specialized requests, to the point where in one scene Bettie is tied and gagged in a black corset, with arms raised in an almost crucifixion pose. At that moment she is asked by her raucous British photographer John Willie (Jared Harris) what Jesus would say about what she was doing. Bettie confesses that she has contemplated that question, and while admitting that she doesn’t know the answer, she reasons that God gave her the talent to pose for pictures, and that they seem to make people happy.


The lasting appeal of Bettie Page’s photographs and stag films largely can be attributed to the playfulness and sense of fun that she effuses in them, despite the fact that she was portraying acts that were unspeakable, even unheard of, in the ‘50s. In the film, Bettie determines spanking and rope flagellation films like “Sally's Punishment” to be nothing more than costume and dress-up playacting. She perceives her employers, Irving and Paula Klaw (played by Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor) to be nice people, as well as her fans, even though the Senate subcommittee, led by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), would label them as deviants. Even Bettie’s boyfriend calls her bondage photos disgusting.

Harron thankfully approaches her film through Bettie’s eyes, without a revisionist’s air of judgment. The director doesn’t draw a direct link between Bettie’s abuse and a desire to push the envelope. And in today’s political climate, with the religious right voicing its stance on morals and values as loudly as ever, a filmmaker with Harron's alternative culture credentials (as a rock journalist, she was the first to interview the Sex Pistols for an American publication) might be tempted to take shots at Bettie's religious upbringing and convictions or overstate how innocuous her most titillating work appears in today’s light.

Instead, Harron remains faithful to the era she is recreating and gives the cultural concerns of those days respective pertinence. Visually, she mixes in archival footage of ‘50s New York and Times Square (at times not so seamlessly) with the black and white segments and, later in the film, she and Hupfel reproduce the look Super-8 and ‘50s Technicolor, the latter by using filters, lenses and extensive lighting setups from the studio age. The film’s color scenes generally coincide with Bettie's trips to Miami, where she worked with photographer Bunny Yeager (played by Sarah Paulson), who shot Page's famous Christmas-themed centerfold for the January 1955 issue of Playboy.


Today Bettie Page is in her 80s and living in California, and thanks to some assistance from Hugh Hefner, she now profits from the sales of her image. She was not involved in the making of The Notorious Bettie Page, however, because of a commitment to another project. That's somewhat of a shame because Harron and Mol have made an endearing film that tries, with apparent affection and sincerity, to do Page's story justice, yet nevertheless could benefit from dashes of personal revelation and insight, if only to offset some of its cuddliness.

In the years after her retirement from modeling, Bettie Page had to grapple with the documented images of her past, having to decide whether to live them down or embrace them. She eventually chose to celebrate them. Gretchen Mol has had a single image haunt her the last seven years, but perhaps no longer. It appears that 1998’s ‘It’ girl has arrived at last.

The Notorious Bettie Page opens April 14.

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Vadim Uvazhny
September 8th 2009
7:58am

Did anybody watch this film? Share your impressions, please.

reena
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Mary Harron’s good film i have reading lot of time

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