The Notorious Bettie Page
Friday, April 21, 2006
Filmmaker Mary Harron became interested in the life of Bettie Page when she discovered that the fifties pin up queen was still alive but no longer allowed photos to be taken of her. For more than a decade, Harron kept the Page story on the back burner, waiting for the right elements to come together. And eventually they did. Guinevere Turner (writer-director ofGo Fish
) collaborated with Harron on a screenplay, and actress Gretchen Mol traded in her blonde locks for shoulder length raven hair and bangs to play the 'notorious' Bettie Page.
Harron and Turner open the film in the fifties with a police sting that catches a shady adult bookstore owner selling a booklet of 'specialty' photos called 'Bettie Page in Bondage.' Next we see Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) chairing a Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, which includes an inquiry into the impact of pornographic material on the nation's youth. A Catholic priest testifies that pornography is a greater menace to America than Communism. Outside the senate chambers, we see a dark-haired woman waiting patiently to be called before the committee. The woman, in a prim suit and white gloves, is none other than that girl in bondage, Bettie Page (an incandescent Gretchen Mol), and she seems a bit baffled by the all the proceedings.
To help understand the contrast between the polite southern woman we meet and the lingerie clad model tied up in ropes in the photos, Harron takes us back in time to find a young Bettie growing up during the Depression in Nashville. She's a bright student who attracts the attention of the local boys. But her conservative mom won't allow any dating. So Bettie marries young, ends up leaving her husband and eventually lands in New York.
A walk on the beach leads to a chance encounter with Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll), an off-duty police officer and part-time photographer. After an impromptu photo session, Jerry suggests that she re-style her hair and use curving bangs to hide her broad forehead. And in that moment the iconic Bettie Page look is born. Despite her religious upbringing, Bettie has no trouble taking on work as a model for photographers who want sexy poses for men's magazines and private collectors. Bettie's eventually hooks up with Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his half-sister Paula (the always marvelous Lili Taylor) who run a photo business that provides specialty photos for private clients. These poses often require that Bettie wear stiletto boots, brandish a whip and sometimes be tied up. But Bettie finds the bondage scenarios to be more silly than dangerous. In contrast to the black leather and lace of the Klaws' photos are the bright sunny pin up poses she does for photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) in Florida.
But as we return to the senate hearings, we find a father testifying that Bettie's bondage pictures caused his son's death. Although the photos are obviously not the cause of the young man's demise, the father's grief is all too real and his belief that his son's exposure to Bettie's bondage pictures caused his death is unwavering. This combined with a series of other events prompt Bettie to return to her religious roots and begin a new life, one that leaves her former career behind but without denouncing it.
Bettie Page, like the flapper cartoon sexpot Betty Boop, has proven to be an enduring sexual icon in American pop culture. These two Betties display a quirkily American quality by somehow managing to be wholesome and sexy at the same time. No matter how stripped down and alluring they appeared, they retained a perky innocence, and seeming lack of awareness about the impact they had on men.
Mary Harron, who directed I Shot Andy Warhol (about Valerie Solanas' attempt to kill the famed pop artist) and American Psycho (based on Bret Easton Ellis' novel), is interested in the contrasts served up by Bettie Page. In the press materials, Harron states, 'Bettie's photos reflect that split - she's like Betty Crocker coming out with a tray of cookies, and yet she's posing with a whip. She's so wholesome and at the same time she's very sexual.'
In The Notorious Bettie Page , Harron sees her character as both embodying and shattering the stereotype of what the ideal fifties woman should be. Just the fact that Page left her husband and went out on her own to New York City reveals a level of independence not exhibited by most women of that time. But Harron also lets us glimpse the life that Bettie could have had as either an abused spouse (if she stayed in her marriage) or as a secretary or receptionist (jobs she might have gotten stuck in if she hadn't fallen into modeling). Harron implies the limited options that most women had at that time by showing Page taking typing lessons, answering phones, and talking about a failed attempt at teaching. But Page decided to pose nude and semi-nude, which was definitely not a common career path for a 1950s woman. Harron shows that the images of Bettie in black lingerie and bound in ropes titillated men in the 1950s. Yet Harron suggests that those images may persist today because they unwittingly conveyed the social bondage that women in the fifties found themselves in. In a way, the Bettie in bondage pictures symbolize the how 1950s women were bound up and constrained by rigid social and cultural conventions, while at the same time by making the daring photos Bettie was shattering those conventions.
Although the film takes the title The Notorious Bettie Page , Harron actually doesn't see much that's notorious in Page's life. The fact that the film has been put together mostly by women seems to have changed the tone of the sexual images presented. The photo shoots and the sexy shots are not endowed with any titillating sensuality or eroticism. Instead there's a kind of banality to the process of creating such images. The result of this approach is that Page never becomes a sex object in front of Harron's lens. Instead, she's just a person engaged in her work. Some may want the film to be more sensational but that's not what Harron wants to deliver.
In fact, The Notorious Bettie Page offers a biography that's surprisingly casual and intimate in the way it unfolds. Harron avoids the biopic trap of making each event seem overly important. Harron implies that Page was molested by her father and sexually assaulted by a gang of young men, but neither event is presented as something that pretends to 'explain' who Page was. Each event help to shape Page's life but Harron refuses let events play out as simple causes and effects, and that's refreshing. But we sense that such abusive treatment by men prompted Page to want independence so that she wouldn't have to depend on anyone but herself. Harron's directing combined with Turner's writing reflect the randomness of real life and allow us to move through Page's life without feeling like it's a contrived melodrama.
What's also refreshing is Harron's refusal to simplify or stereotype. She could have easily turned the two preachers (one from Page's childhood and one in Miami that she turns to) into over the top caricatures of Elmer Gantry or mocked Page's religious convictions. But she presents these things with sincerity and respect. It's not necessarily that Harron buys into the same religious convictions as Page but she does want to present those beliefs in a non-judgmental manner. Similarly, at the senate hearings, Harron may not believe a father's assertion that pornography caused his son's death, but the filmmaker allows his grief and bewilderment to be painfully real.
Harron also endows the film with a sumptuous visual look. The majority of the film is shot in noirish black and white that's inspired by the gritty look of such films as Sam Fuller's Pick Up on South Street . Then Harron brings the film to vibrant Technicolor life as Page travels to Miami to work with Bunny Yeager. These scenes have a hyper real quality that recalls the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s (films such as Magnificent Obsession , All that Heaven Allows , Written on the Wind ). In these scenes the colors are overripe and capture the sense of Miami being a paradise escape for Page. The lush look also reflects the different photographic style of Yeager who shot famous images of Page in a leopard bikini and wearing nothing but a Santa hat. There's even a bouncy sequence in which Page's full color pin up covers come to life. Harron and Mott Hupfel take great care in creating a look that imitates the styles found in 1950s American cinema, and their meticulous work is a visual delight.
The Notorious Bettie Page (unrated but for mature audiences) showcases a captivating performance by Gretchen Mol as the quiet Nashville girl who becomes the woman described as the most popular pin up in the universe, and it introduces Page to what may become another generation of fans. The film never gets inside Page's mind but it is an intimate and fascinating portrait nonetheless.
Companion viewing: I Shot Andy Warhol , Pick Up on South Street , anything in Technicolor from Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, Christine Fugate's documentary The Girl Next Door , Star 80 -----