Phil on Film Index
Sunday, August 06, 2006
Review - The Notorious Bettie Page
Who was Bettie Page? Well, most people will be able to tell you that Page was one of the most famous, or infamous, pin-ups of the 1950’s; notable in particular for her bondage pictures. From Mary Harron’s film The Notorious Bettie Page, viewers may learn that Page was born into a strictly religious Nashville family, suffered from all manner of sexual abuse during her formative years, and, after achieving fame with her saucy photos, she turned her back on the world of pornography and became a born-again Christian.
Those looking for anything other than the most basic information on Page’s life are advised to look beyond The Notorious Bettie Page, as Harron’s infuriatingly shallow film doesn’t come close to giving us anything of substance.
The Notorious Bettie Page opens in 1955, towards the end of Page’s modelling career, and it finds our heroine (fetchingly played by Gretchen Moll) nervously waiting to be called before a senate enquiry into the affect of pornographic images on juvenile delinquency, which is being chaired by senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn, again proving the 50’s is his milieu). To while away the time Bettie begins reading a letter from her sister which opens with a memory of their childhood, providing Harron with the opportunity to segue clumsily into Bettie’s early days. These scenes could be interesting, the years in which the austere religious environment and the sexual abuse meted out to Bettie by her father would surely have had a huge bearing on her later attitude to sex and sexuality, but Harron seems determined to skip past all of this to get to the fun stuff.
Harron soft-pedals the sexual abuse situation to the point where we’re not exactly sure what, if anything, has occurred; and when Bettie is taken into the woods to be raped by a group of boys, Harron again fails to instil the picture with any kind of sexual threat. Coming from the director who made American Psycho, a film which glistened with understated menace, the lack of any sense of impact or consequence from these incidents is a curious omission. As in both American Psycho and her earlier film I Shot Andy Warhol, Harron attempts to adopt a detached tone in her direction, viewing her subject in an objective, if slightly ironic, way. When allied to Christian Bale’s stunning performance in American Psycho, this approach worked a treat, brilliantly emphasising the coldness and lack of a moral centre to Patrick Bateman’s world; but here it seems to flatten the picture, preventing us from ever really getting under the subject’s skin.
The film’s early stages are humdrum and forgettable, and it only starts to find its feet when Bettie starts to shed her clothes. This is pretty apt, because Bettie herself seems a different, more vibrant character when she’s posing in front of a camera. Bettie stumbles into her career when she’s spotted by a policeman who moonlights as an amateur photographer on the beach. His suggestions about the way the light reflects off Bettie’s forehead leads to her adopting her famous hairstyle, and the modelling jobs soon start to pile up. A bikini-clad Bettie pouts from the front of magazines with such ‘wink-wink’ titles as Batchelor, Whisper or Flirt, and she makes money with private sessions with a male photography club; but it isn’t until she hooks up with Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor) that her notoriety begins to grow.
The Klaws specialised in particular niche markets of photography, and bondage was the name of the game as Bettie and a couple of other girls tied each other up while wearing leather corsets and nine-inch heels, and took part in shabbily shot S+M films with titles like Sally’s Punishment and The Second Initiation of the Sorority Girl. It was all a long way from Bettie’s wholesome God-fearing upbringing, but we never really learn what this sweet southern girl really made of all this stuff.
If you believe Harron’s film, Bettie Page was naïveté personified. When a photographer hesitantly asks her if she’ll remove the top half of her swimsuit, she thinks for a moment before replying “where’s the harm? It’s only a piece of cloth” and gladly unhooks her bra. When her boyfriend later discovers pictures of Bettie bound and gagged, she seems completely bemused by his reaction and she reassures him that it’s “just like playing dress-up” and tells him that they were “giggling all the time” during the shoot. She approaches every kinky shoot with the same wide-eyed, innocent girlishness; but did Bettie really not see the darker sexual aspect to her poses? Did she have any opinion on the rights or wrongs of her career? She utters a few bland lines such as “Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden” and “God gave me the talent to pose and it makes people happy”; but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re not being told anything like the whole story.
The Notorious Bettie Page doesn’t give us much food for thought, but it at least offers some pleasure with a delightful central performance from Gretchen Moll. She may not have seemed the ideal actress for this part initially, but when she dons a black wig Moll strikes an uncanny resemblance to Page, and she offers a supremely perky and lovable performance which helps hold the viewers’ interest while the movie flails in no particular direction. Moll really sells Page’s innocent demeanour and transforms herself when she’s posing in leather bondage gear, or in nothing at all. She seems completely relaxed and carefree in her nudity, and her enthusiasm is infectious. The Notorious Bettie Page gives Moll a few good supporting characters to work with too; Cara Seymour gives her usual strong turn as Bettie’s friend Maxie, and Jared Harris is hilarious as sleazy photographer John Willie. What a shame their performances are let down by the material.
The Notorious Bettie Page looks smart, with fine period detail and cinematography from Mott Hupfel which flashes between slick black-and-white and Douglas Sirk-style Technicolor. Unfortunately, the grainy stock footage which is occasionally spliced into the picture lends it a whiff of cheapness, and Harron introduces a number of kitsch montage sequences, set to a toe-tapping soundtrack, which are carefully placed to gloss over the holes in her narrative.
The Notorious Bettie Page is a huge disappointment; a mundane and uninvolving effort which barely skims the surface of Page’s life. Late in the film we see Bettie pick up a random Hispanic man on a Florida beach; who is this guy? Why did Page choose him? Page and this anonymous character are later seen living together but we still don’t know who he is - and this incident is symptomatic of the lack of depth and basic sloppiness which courses throughout the entire picture. Mary Harron’s film asks us to believe that Bettie Page breezed through life in a state of blissful ignorance and innocence, and only by viewing The Notorious Bettie Page through similarly unquestioning eyes could we really get anything from it. As a cinematic experience, it’s about as edifying as spending 90 minutes looking over the titular character’s old photos; and when the credits roll and the lights go up, Bettie remains a blank Page.