“Doctors write books about this sort of thing. It’s abnormal.”
As a Bettie Page fan, I was both eager and apprehensive to see the film The Notorious Bettie Page. My main concern was that the actress chosen to play Bettie Page wouldn’t be able to do the part justice. I was wrong on that score–Gretchen Mol makes a splendid Bettie Page. After watching the film, I studied some Bettie Page photos (on my wall) and concluded that Mol’s performance was close enough to be almost perfect. Unfortunately, however, Gretchen Mol’s glowing performance cannot salvage the script from mediocrity.
The film begins with scenes of Bettie’s troubled childhood–hinting at early childhood abuse, and briefly touches on her youthful marriage. Bettie wanted to be an actress, but like many girls, she sidestepped into modeling. In Bettie’s case, however, nude modeling proved to be her forte. She moved on to the remarkable Klaw siblings–Irving (Chris Bauer) and Paula (Lili Taylor) and their mail-order photography business. It was with the Klaws that Bettie made those famous bondage films. Bette’s career came to a crashing halt when the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency crushed Klaw’s lucrative mail-order business, and Klaw closed shop due to constant harassment.
The film’s treatment of the adult naughty photography business of the 50s is well done. For the most part the film is in black and white but switches to colour whenever Bettie escapes from New York and romps in Florida. The major problem with the film is its characterization of Bettie. Here she’s played as innocent and naive to the point of absurdity. The film shows her tripping in those high heels the first time Paula Klaw hands her a pair. To her, the pin-up photos are good clean fun and no big deal. At one point, dressed in trademark undies for a bondage shot, she even justifies her career by stating that Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden.
Now while I don’t buy that Bettie Page was innocent and naive, I also don’t happen to think that Bettie Page was wicked or depraved either. Bettie Page was a complex woman–someone who suffered childhood sexual abuse, had complicated relationships with men, and compartmentalized contrasting elements of her life. She never drank alcohol and even turned down Howard Hughes, and she also posed in some fairly wild bondage shots (they seem mild in comparison to today’s stuff, but for the times, they are wild). There’s one scene with Bettie crawling on her hands and knees, blindfolded, gagged and chained to a long pole which she straddles as she crawls across the floor. Innocent and naive? No. Complicated? Yes. Bettie is portrayed here as unaltered by both her past and her present, and by concentrating on what she did rather than who she was, the script manages to make the bondage goddess dull. Too bad the film didn’t examine her later life (read The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of Pinups by Richard Foster). Basically, for this fan, the film is an unsatisfying fluff piece. From director Mary Harron.