The director of the sickly satirical American Psycho has now tackled the sweetly subversive true-life tale of an American nudist, The Notorious Bettie Page.
Mary Harron’s latest movie, about one of the world’s most famous pinup girls, starts out with a dirty sense of fun. It’s 1955 New York and the local porn shop is buzzing with customers. One fidgety man in particular is anxious to find “anything with unusual footwear,” like leather boots with laces.
When the hot stuff is presented to him – a photo of the strikingly gorgeous, and fully clothed, Bettie Page wearing knee-high leather boots with white laces – the man flashes his badge and busts the shop for propagating such filth.
Indeed, even in the midst of the Cold War, it’s not communism that will defeat the U.S., it’ll be something far more insidious, an evil from within: pornography.
The story of the woman in that photo is a classic case of one thing leading to another; a church girl from Nashville, she was as smart as she was hot. A member of the debate team and candidate for valedictorian, it was her interest in acting that caused one grade to drop and relegate her to the dustbin of salutatorian.
Instead of a scholarship to Vanderbilt, Bettie would get a full-blown education from the School of Hard Knocks. Following on the heels of an incestuous relationship with her father was a doting football player who turned into an abusive husband; when Bettie struck out on her own, her persistent sense of innocence led her into a gang rape.
Through it all, Bettie had a God-given talent for posing for pictures that made people happy.
Clothes, Pose, and Expression
In many respects, the style Harron uses to bring Bettie’s life to the big screen is similar to Francis Coppola’s Tucker. The bio-pic of the carmaker who dared to take on the big guns of Detroit was chock full o’ giddy panache, a colorful, glossy movie that still managed to capture the essence of the man at the heart of the story.
Here, Harron’s results are less successful, but still enjoyable. The most questionable choice is Harron’s decision to film mostly in black and white (or, quite probably on color film stock printed in black and white). The choice works well in setting the stage and capturing the “noir” essence of the opening scene, the relative simplicity of life in 1940s New York, and the drama of the court case that bookends the main body of the film.
However, the story of Bettie Page screams to be told in full Technicolor. Tim Burton chose wisely when he took the black-and-white route for his Ed Wood bio-pic, but it doesn’t quite work as effectively here.
Mercifully, Harron does open up Bettie’s world – in a limited number of scenes – to a delightful Crayola Crayon box of color, wonderfully replicating the look of 1950s color movies. There’s a montage of Bettie posing for cover shoots, behind-the-scenes footage of Bettie’s scandalous movies (with titles like Sally’s Punishment), and scenes of Bettie on the beach in Miami.
Pinup Queen of the Universe
The film stock controversy aside, The Notorious Bettie Page provides an opportunity for Gretchen Mol (Celebrity) to absolutely shine in the starring role. It’s delightful to see her recreate Bettie’s most famous poses, so scandalous in their day; sporting that classic hairdo, Mol is Bettie Page.
Looking deeper, playing Bettie isn’t a simple matter of copying her saucy and haughty looks. Her youth was a time of major internal conflict and, like any woman, she had to navigate a minefield of dubious men with even more dubious intentions. Having lived and learned, while waiting to provide her testimony in court Bettie remains self-assured enough to tell the smitten guard, “I’ll be fine on my own.”
Bettie toed a fine line, one that put her in compromising situations, using sexuality which in turn merely perpetuated her own objectification. Of course, she could find justification in the money, but it’s a situation that continues to ensnare women today, even more so with the Internet exponentially expanding the opportunities.
Viewed and treated as a sex object, it was instinctual, then, for her to struggle with one of the biggest challenges in acting: sitting still. During acting class, the 2-minute exercise was more than she could bear, choosing to strip off her clothes seconds into the endeavor.
“It’s not necessary to remove your clothes,” her acting coach told her. The next student, a male, would nail the assignment with an icy-cold stare. Torn by her strict religious upbringing, the court case that would ultimately lead to the destruction of loads of Bettie’s work would also bring her back to God and back to church, where the singing and preaching would in turn take her to another place altogether.
The Gospel According to Bettie
Amid all the hoopla of The Da Vinci Code and The Gospel of Judas, revisiting what happened in the Old and New Testaments is back in vogue. Along those lines, Bettie asks another penetrating question: Is posing naked really bad? After all, Adam and Eve started wearing clothes only after they sinned.
The Notorious Bettie Page also hits on the double standards that still torment American sexuality today. What’s fine for Shakespeare and Kiss Me Kate is considered distasteful when taken out of those contexts and presented singularly, in a photograph.
At least that’s one of the arguments made by Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer, Broken Flowers). Known as the “Pinup King,” he served as Bettie’s “agent” in the heyday of her photographic adventures.
As the cinematic drama of Bettie’s life unfolds, the double standards extend to the customers buying the smut even as the big trial looms. One of Irving’s biggest customers was also a lawyer.
Much like Bettie herself, who at 32 years old also had to fight the modeling age barrier, there’s loads of beauty on the surface of this movie, but there’s loads more substance lying under the skin.