The Notorious Bettie Page
2006Director: Mary Harron
Cast: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, David Strathairn
hop, skip, and a stone's throw away from that other famous diamond gal up-skirt beats a surprisingly reticent heart with skeletons to spare, and a closet full of whips and straps. When sex sells, it also sails and soars. Beyond that, though, one Bettie Page (who is notorious only by nature) encompassed a compound fracture of broken deviance and tight-lipped morals that one might find buried beneath now-vintage garb and fashionista sensibilities.
In the first real Page feature, The Notorious Bettie Page,American Psycho director, Mary Harron—whose former film was engulfed by not-so-vague jabs at the capitalist male and modern feminism—employs a peculiar blend of the rose-colored and the blood-splattered in her quasi-love letter to the bondage queen. Without the hefty weight of conceptualism, a seemingly featherweight journey is traveled, sidestepping most melodramatic claptraps while still packing the emotional punch delivered by standard Hollywood biopics.
When we first meet our heroine in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, we are provided glimpses into her strict religious confines and church-attending ways; we later see young Bettie and her sisters flashing up their skirts at passers-by in their cars. The film catalogues the sometimes miserable existence of her young life (through her early twenties), including a failed marriage and a sexual assault that is not shown in any graphic detail The odd thing is that in the process, so intent on presenting these incidents as developmental rather than definitive, Harron almost marginalizes them.
When Page, played with skilled charm by Gretchen Mol, reaches the big city (New York), her story of fame begins. Failed beauty pageants and sparse photo shoots lead nowhere… until they lead somewhere. Irving and Paula (Chris Bauer and Lilli Taylor) happen to specialize in “special interest” material. Bondage, spanking, and fetishist material is showcased (she’s even asked to show her “kiester!”), and Bettie falls into a goldmine of good-natured depravity.
In time, this brings about those well-documented legal entanglements we’ve all heard about. The film, set before the era of Playboy, shows us a government of puritanical reign and religious grandstanding, embodied by the always solid David Strathairn. As a result, Page finds herself at the center of many tedious hearings and depositions; fortunately, most of this remains beside the point of the film. Still, through important incidents such as these, Harron allows some wonderful insights into Page’s personality and just how genuine she was with regard to her intentions.
Mol brings an infectious energy and self-respect to the much-adorned sex-icon, but makes sure never to let those chilly sparks of regret and (curiously enough) self-doubt fade from her wide-eyed persona. Page often wonders what God thinks of her posing nude, and, of course, eventually retires after becoming a Born-Again Christian. If nothing else, you connect with Page on a human level. Her choices are never romanticized or condemned, but are always understandable. They are even remarkably innocent. It is clear Page didn’t see a whole lot of sex in her nudity. In a sense, it was more about providing a service.
In some ways, the surprisingly light tone is its own undoing, but I applaud the film’s pining eyes. You get the sense of a sweet tooth but never too much candy. Page’s popularity, as well as her methods, is never shown as anything impure. She provided an outlet. She later provided a scapegoat. Light as that seems, it’s really not a whole lot more complicated than that. And, after all, Harron does a marvelous job of centralizing the film on the lightest and loveliest subject of them all: Ms. Bettie Page.
By: Daniel Rivera
Published on: 2006-04-18