THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (Mary Harron, 2005)
THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE may be the sweetest movie ever made about pornography. The camera loves Bettie, and she enjoys having her picture taken. Never mind that what Bettie calls "silly photographs" include bondage photos and nude shots for girlie magazines.
The title character, wonderfully played by Gretchen Mol with a mixture of naïveté and self-empowerment, is a vivacious southern girl who moves from Tennessee to New York in 1949 in pursuit of an acting career. While doing secretarial work and attending acting classes she finds some success competing in local beauty pageants, but her real break comes when a hobbyist photographer asks to take her picture. Their work together leads to her becoming in demand at amateur photo clubs where she puts at ease the nervous men snapping frame after frame of her shapely form.
Bettie’s popularity brings her to the studio of Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor). The pornographers operate a mail-order business and set up private shoots tailored to the special tastes of their clientele. Bettie excels and becomes the reigning pin-up queen of the 50s, but the attention also ensnares her and the Klaws in a 1955 Congressional smut probe.
Although Mol hasn’t had to deal with controversy and the legal ramifications like Page did, she knows a thing or two about notoriety. To promote her film ROUNDERS the one-time It Girl appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair’s September 1998 issue. The picture may not have torpedoed her nascent career, but when ROUNDERS and her follow-ups didn’t pan out at the box office, the provocative cover made it easier for industry writers to dismiss her as a serious actress. She’s done good work, especially in Neil LaBute’s THE SHAPE OF THINGS, but the stigma remained. THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE should turn things around for her. Mol plays Bettie as a complex woman who has more than a fabulous figure. She conveys Bettie’s comfort with her choices. She’s in charge of her actions and doesn’t believe she’s doing anything wrong, but in an interesting twist, Bettie is open to the possibility that her profession is contrary to her faith. Yet as photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) remarks, "When she’s nude, she doesn’t seem naked."
Although characterized by a frothy pop sensibility, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE takes a serious view of Bettie’s Christianity. During a bondage shoot she’s asked what God thinks of her actions. Bettie replies, "I hope that if He’s unhappy with what I’m doing, He’ll let me know somehow." The response isn’t played for laughs. The unironic portrayal of her faith adds depth to the lighthearted film and builds to a touching affirmation of her beliefs. It’s fair to say that Bettie has compartmentalized her deeds and convictions, but it’s the rare film that eloquently depicts this thorny struggle.
For a film about one woman’s ascent as a pin-up queen, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE has a strong feminist undercurrent. The screenplay, co-written by Guinevere Turner and director Mary Harron, suggests childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse by her first husband, and rape in her past, so for Bettie her modeling work gave her control of her life and sexuality that had been unavailable.
Like Bettie’s photos captivated those with particular tastes, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE appeals to the film fetishist. Mott Hupfel’s silky black and white cinematography, which is accented with a few scenes in sumptuous color, is a treat for those who appreciate fine grain film stock and classic Hollywood lighting. The filmic techniques, from the wipes, storytelling structure, and use of stock footage, recall a past era with admiration and adoration.