The Notorious Bettie Page

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 December

 

 

Bettie Page dies, 2008

On this day in 2008, a woman who had devoted the bulk of her life to Christian causes died, aged 85. But for a while in her 1950s heyday, Bettie Page had been “Queen of Pinups” and left behind a legacy and a look that can be seen all over contemporary culture, from Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Dita von Teese on down, to wherever cute girls play cute. A bright girl at school, and a member of the debating team, she was married and divorced by the age of 24, then set off to find fame and fortune as an actress. Modelling intervened and Bettie’s wholesome, unashamed behaviour in front of the camera soon got her noticed in glamour photography circles. Magazines with names such as Wink and Titter were soon full of Bettie Page. Page’s BDSM shoots, and special short 8mm and 16mm bondage films shot by Irving Klaw were also popular, with Page alternating as the dominatrix and as the poor helpless victim being spanked for being a naughty girl. But it was her work with Jan Caldwell, HW Hannau and Bunny Yeager that immortalised her, several series of pictures that showed Page frolicking in the sea, posing with animals, occasionally nude, usually not, but always sporting the sort of smile that could halt traffic. There was something so utterly innocent about Bettie Page that she seemed to de-smut pornography. She looked like a girl having a good time. And when asked, years later, after she had retired to deliberate obscurity, what she thought of her career in leopard-skin bikinis etc, she said “I never thought it was shameful… it was much better than pounding a typewriter eight hours a day.” Which it undoubtedly was.

 

 

 

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005, dir: Mary Harron)

It’s now considered inappropriate (ie wrong) to comment on a woman’s breasts, but in the case of Gretchen Mol in this admirably truthful biopic about Bettie Page, it has to be said – they are fantastic. And Mol herself, generally underrated, really gets under the skin – if that’s the right phrase for a film about a skinflick model – of the first porn superstar. She’s stupendous as the guileless good-natured girl who saw no harm at all in taking her clothes off and did so with such abandon that none of the moral guardians of culture could quite work out how to deal with her. If we’re being sniffy about the film, it looks like Page had the same effect on the film-makers. The film is directed and written by a pair of women. Director Mary Harron had made I Shot Andy Warhol – about Valerie Solanas, the woman who tried to kill the famous artist – and Guinevere Turner wrote Go Fish and episodes of the TV series The L Word. So there’s possibly a feminist agenda there. One which both Harron and Turner have a lot of trouble trying to pin to Page. So instead they go for period authenticity, and here the film really succeeds, with New York shot in the grainy black and white reminiscent of Super 8, Miami the fizzing colours of Kodak films of the era. People who believe that pornography – if that’s what Page was selling – has a corrupting effect won’t be flocking to watch this film, and it does have a tendency to assume that the argument has been conclusively won. But only the slightest tendency – this really is the “nudity as work” approach, with Mol playing the girl who took her clothes off because it paid the bills and she didn’t mind doing it. Mol’s playing of Page is fearless, and if she never penetrates the mystique, that’s because, the film suggests, the mystique is in our minds, not Bettie’s.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Gretchen Mol’s brilliant performance
  • Mott Hupfel’s lush monochrome (mostly) cinematography
  • A window on a disappeared world
  • A support cast including Sarah Paulson and David Strathairn

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Notorious Bettie Page – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The Notorious Bettie Page”

  1. If this film strikes you (as it did us and, apparently, others departing the theater) as disappointingly thin, it may be because the subject herself is mildly disappointing. The film faithfully presents us Bettie Page as she probably was: a playful almost-innocent from the rural South whose career as "the pinup queen of the universe" was for her just goofy, natural fun. Her eventual moral qualms, religious conversion and sudden departure from nude and bondage modeling are biographically accurate, yet hard to understand given how untroubled she seemed by her livelihood.

    There are many reasons to see this film even so, not least of which are the amazing b&w noir cinematography of W. Mott Hopfel III (complete with old fashioned wipes and dissolves), the 1950's-faithful acting of the cast under the direction of Mary Harron, pitch-perfect performances by some of our most underrated supporting actors (including Chris Bauer, Lili Taylor, Sarah Paulson, Austin Pendleton, Dallas Roberts and Victor Slezak), not to mention the Oscar-worthy and technically difficult lead performance of Gretchen Mol.

    Ms. Mol does several scenes fully naked and most others in amazing period lingerie and "specialty" costumes (gloriously assembled by costume designer John A. Dunn), yet she astonishingly maintains Bettie Page's unstudied pleasure in her lush body. To watch Ms. Mol as Ms. Page, an aspiring actress, progressing through degrees of progressively less "bad" auditions and student acting scenes is to see a truly fine actress in complete control of her craft.

    The script does effectively bring us into 1950's America, where childhood sexual abuse, lawless abduction and rape, and the legal suppression of brands of pornography which today seem laughably tame, is a reality. 50's New York is evoked with seamlessly-inter cut news reel footage. 50's Miami comes alive in super-saturated, 16mm-style color. The real Bettie Page seems to scamper, smile and pose before us, and yet the effect is curiously lightweight, barely lewd and not at all dangerous.

    How odd that bondage's greatest icon should be so lacking in venom, and that this technically excellent biopic should have so little sting.

  2. More a snapshot of the most popular pinup of all time than your typical dragged out biopic, this fun and fabulous film has the look and feel of the era with an excellent soundtrack and everything you would want in an indie-type film. I think the tendency would be to portray Bettie Page as some sort of sex vixen, like a Jayne Mansfield. But if you’ve truly looked carefully at Bettie’s poses, she always looked happy. Not a "you wish you could get with me" haughty look, nor the "I’m just doing this because my acting career didn’t work out" look of a porn star. And so, the ladies involved with this film (three female producers, a female writer/ director, female co-writer and the lovely Gretchen Mol, who I’m sure helped shape this role with her own sugary influence) really captured the idea of a sweet, somewhat naive, southern girl who really enjoyed having her photo taken and hoped that good ol’ JC wouldn’t be too upset with her.

    Gretchen Mol turns out a career high performance (she may just have the most perfect breasts ever), which I am happy about, because she did have the curse. Several years ago, she made the cover of Vanity Fair when no one really knew who she was, touting her as the next It-girl. And let’s be frank, that was a bit presumptuous. I mean unfortunately she has never made it to Gwyneth status, though not for lack of talent. Making a few poor film choices when you are a pretty blonde in fickle Hollywood renders you forgettable I’m afraid. If this doesn’t put her back on the A-list, well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

    Intensely private, Bettie herself has not seen the film yet. Bettie left the pinup party on a high note and fell in love with her old flame, Jesus. Whatever floats your boat honey. You were one helluva woman. I hope you’re happy wherever you are.

    Congratulations Mary Harron, you’ve done our cult idol justice.

  3. Canadian filmmaker Mary Harron is a cultural gadfly whose previous films laid bare some the artistic excess of the Sixties and the hollow avaricious Eighties. With "The Notorious Bettie Page" she points her unswerving eye at Fifties America, an era cloaked in the moral righteousness of Joe McCarthy, while experiencing the beginnings of a sexual awakening that would result in the free love of the next decade. Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner, are clearly not interested in the standard biopic of a sex symbol. This is a film about the underground icon of an era and how her pure unashamed sexuality revealed both the predatory instincts and impure thoughts of a culture untouched by the beauty of a nude body. If the details of Bettie’s life were all the film was concerned about, then why end it before her most tragic period was about to begin. Clearly, Harron is more interested in America’s attitudes towards sexual imagery then and now. Together with a fearless lead performance by Gretchen Mol and the stunningly atmospheric cinematography of W.Mott Hupfel III, she accomplishes this goal admirably, holding up a mirror to the past while making the audience examine their own "enlightened" 21st Century attitudes towards so-called pornography. As America suffocates under a new conservatism, this is a film needed more than ever.

  4. One of the great pioneers of Pre-XXX exploitation cinema, David Friedman, has often said that one of the main keys to his success (particularly in regards to his sexploitation films) was that he always teased the audience. Show them just enough to lure them in (and give them some of what they want), but not enough so that were satisfied and didn't have to come back (but leave them asking for more).

    Certainly, Bettie Page and the Klaws knew how to tease their audience when they did their photo and film shoots. Unfortunately, the same could be said for this film and it disappoints for that reason. Harron's film is all surface and tease (and well done in that regard), but we never learn that much of the person behind the bondage.

    For a low budget film Harron is quite deft in combining stock footage, set decoration-wardrobe and film stock manipulation to bring the era to life. The recreations of Bettie Page's career are handled with care and attention to detail. Were the same only able to be said about the screenplay which is banal and…ahem…only skin deep.

    Judging the acting is more problematic in that Harron has chosen to go along with what seems to be the prevailing technique current filmmakers have when portraying characters of the 1950's – They seem to smile, grin and leer in a bizarre ritualistic way as if they were the members of a cult who can communicate with one another through their teeth and eyes! Mol does her best within this construct, even if she's too thin to realistically depict the voluptuous Page as she was (fortunately, Harron was wise enough to find a suitable actress without anachronistic implants).

    It's not quite correct as many have contended that the film doesn't tell a linear narrative story (many have argued that it's just a slice of her life, nothing more). There IS an arc to the story. What's crucially missing are the thoughts and feelings of Bettie herself. Surely, a girl with such a strict religious background (which she returned to), would have believed something more strongly about the sexual nature of her work than "Adam and Eve were naked". When the film gets more serious towards the end, both it and Mol's performance are harmed because the audience has gotten used to the winks and the smiles, and haven't been given reason to think any more deeply than that.

    In the end, it's like that glossy magazine you see on the newsstand, all bright, shiny and alluring, but you suspect that inside it will be a teasing disappointment.

    P.S. Just a note on the Black & White photography. Pity that better care wasn't given to the film stocks used for the release prints. They seem to have blue tint to them, so you don't get the full dark blacks and bright whites of true B&W film stock. Hopefully, this will be corrected on DVD.

    Also, because Page is such an icon, there's an odd sense that you don't WANT to know the details behind the image (even when they are so superficial as here). Of course, recent biographies and a recent L.A. Times interview with Page herself have sort of let the cat out of the bag prior to this film.

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