The Notorious Bettie Page
Back in the sexually repressive 1950s a pertly pretty churchgoing girl named Bettie Page went to New York to find her fortune as an actress. Instead, she discovered an exhibitionist streak in herself and posed for playful seminude, nude, and bondage photos until she got tired of doing so, and then got back into being a full-time Christian.
And aside from the undeniable attractions of Gretchen Mol’s golly-gee take on Page and frequent nudity, that’s about all there is to Mary Harron’s vacuum-packed biopic. At one early junction, Page is gang-raped, but the idea that such an event might influence someone’s choice to strip for strangers in bondage shots interests her biographer not a whit. Certainly not when there’s the job of positioning Page as a post-post-feminist political model of natural female sexuality to get on with. While hiply chilly to psychological depth, Harron’s movie—co-written with Guinevere Turner—behaves as if being in-crowd retro, schematic, or arbitrary are indicators of artistic purity.
Scenes in New York are shot in energetically clunky black and white; others at Page’s parents’ home in the South are in simulated Technicolor. While proving that Harron can ape the styles of, respectively, Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, the different filming techniques do nothing to illuminate Page’s story. But hey—priorities.
Turns out, the early pornmeisters were selfless torchbearers of free expression. And so, fetish-photog legend Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) becomes a wide-eyed innocent, and his wife, Paula (Lili Taylor), a heart-of-gold Noo Yawker. While attending acting classes, Page has an affair with Marvin (Jonathan M. Woodward), another thespian striver, who questions her modeling, and thus underlines the movie’s thesis that those who support Bettie’s nudism are Good, and those who question it are Icky and Puritanical.
Sociosexual subtleties aside, and perhaps in a meta mode too cool for us to grok, Page itself is nothing more than a catalog of fetish ephemera. Harron’s camera dotes on re-creations of period nudie magazines and Page’s 8-mm films. Newsreel footage limns a cost effective rendering of Gotham past, and a stream of period tunes pine for another pass at the retro swing craze.
Meanwhile, the creation of Page’s biggest contribution to the style-image bank—the beveled bangs hairstyle that launched a million goths—is a typically arbitrary toss-off. While wandering around Coney Island, she meets Jerry (Kevin Carroll), a black cop, who asks her to pose, and then cut her bangs, both of which she does with giggly, girlish submission. Then Jerry—who might not even be a cop, but, like, whatever—like Marvin later in the movie, like Page herself as anything other than a cute found object, simply disappears. Harron’s American Psycho suggested a cool intelligence. The Notorious Bettie Page suggests nothing more than self-involved hipster indifference.