Synopsis: In an incandescent performance, Gretchen Mol (The Shape of Things) stars as Bettie Page, who grew up in a conservative religious family in Tennessee and became a photo model sensation in 1950s New York. Bettie’s legendary pin-up photos made her the target of a Senate investigation into pornography, and transformed her into an erotic icon who continues to enthrall fan to this day. Complemented by an ensemble cast of acclaimed actors, such as David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Lili Taylor (High Fidelity), the film brings to vivid life Bettie’s fascinating world.
eyelights: Gretchen Mol. Mary Harron’s directorial choices.
eyesores: the thinness of the script.
“I’m not ashamed. Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden, weren’t they? When they sinned, they put on clothes.”
Before 2008, when I first saw ‘The Notorious Bettie Page’, I knew next to nothing about the legendary pin-up; though I’d seen her likeness around from time to time, I had no real idea just how influential she was. But I picked up the DVD of Mary Harron’s 2005 biopic based on positive reviews and the fact that it was her follow-up to the simply amazing ‘American Psycho‘.
Sadly, I was disappointed with it.
While it afforded me a quick glimpse into the sexy icon’s life and a greater look at the talented Gretchen Mol, who had piqued my curiosity in the woefully under-rated ‘The Thirteenth Floor‘, I can’t say that it made me want to know more about (or even see more of!) Bettie Page. It took ‘Bettie Page Reveals All‘ for me to truly discover the so-called “Queen of Pinups”.
Watching ‘The Notorious Bettie Page’ nearly a decade later, it seems clear to me why it didn’t compel me and why it had disappointed a large number of fans: the picture is composed of a series of short vignettes, few of which afford the audience a concrete look at her experiences, let alone provide access to Page’s emotional life. It treats nearly everything superficially.
A perfect example is Page’s early life, which consisted of sexual abuse by her father and a gang rape. The former is suggested but its impact is never explored; surely this had some effect on the thirteen-year-old. The latter is more explicitly established (though, thankfully, Harron spared us the grisly details) but, again, the moment was quickly forgotten.
Next thing we knew, Bettie was moving to New York City and started modeling.
Really? That’s it? I’m not saying that the picture needed to be heavy and explore every dark corner of Page’s soul, but it trivialized significant events in her life. It made of her a two-dimensional character. Even her romantic relationships are given a quick glance, even though it’s a known fact that they were a challenge for her, and some included physical abuse.
Her career landmarks are also blips on the radar. Though she was one of the first Playboy centerfolds, here she’s shown doing a Christmas-themed shoot and that’s it. And the connecting thread of the senatorial hearing on pornography that found her bondage work at its center? Well, despite its apparent significance, there’s no conclusion or consequence to it.
The only aspects of her that come through clearly are the fact that she was a devout Christian and that she initially had no problem consolidating that with her work; she felt that God had created us nude and that there was nothing sinful in the human body; her work was rarely explicitly suggestive. It’s only as she faced disapproval that she began to have doubts.
Thankfully, Gretchen Mol does a lovely job of incarnating Page. She doesn’t quite look the part, but she’s a close enough approximation and she was able to bring Page’s inner life to the forefront. No one can recreate Page’s magic, but admittedly Mol’s best moments are during the photoshoots – she emulated the natural confidence and whimsy that are her essence.
Some of the most fun moments were the recreations of her magazine covers, which found Mol posing in the frame, behind the titles and text. These were some of the few colour shots in the otherwise black and white film and they popped. Beyond that, colour was relegated to the gorgeous Technicolor-like shots of her in Miami, when she escaped her everyday life.
It’s choices like these that make ‘The Notorious Bettie Page’ enjoyable – beyond the obvious treat of watching Bettie’s likeness posing and filming her short movies (these recreations looked like they were a hoot – especially the bondage ones, which are very silly in nature). They added a playful quality that is very much in keeping with Bettie Page’s persona.
This almost makes up for the thin script, which contents itself with setting up various photoshoots and then stringing them together with the downplayed aspects of Page’s life, such as her values, other career choices, personal relationships and transition from cheesecake model to open-air preacher. But it’s not enough to leave the viewer satisfied.
‘The Notorious Bettie Page’ feels like a TV movie, from the script to its many unnatural performances. It probably should have been more about Bettie Page’s internal struggles, but instead it take a superficial turn, and lacks punch. And yet, despite its insubstantiality, it flies by; it’s an effortlessly enjoyable film. So it’s hard to be overly critical of it.
Or of its “notorious” subject.
Date of viewing: December 17, 2016