Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind
For which thou whipp'st her.
King Lear, IV, vi.
They called her "the Pin-up Queen of the Universe." She appeared in films and photographs the 1950s, and then disappeared from public view. By the time she began giving interviews again, she’d developed a retro-cult following. Magazines had been dedicated to her. She’d appeared in comic books, inspired an action figure, and served as the model for Jenny Blake in The Rocketeer. Later, documentaries were released and books were written.
In 2006, Bettie Page became the subject of a biopic.
The Notorious Bettie Page shows a small-town southern girl, popular, devout, and bright. Beneath that public image she conceals dark secrets. Her father sexually abuses her. Her short-lived teaching career is followed by a short-lived marriage to a brutish lout. The film gives these experiences short shrift. Its most memorable scene, however, depicts one horrible, harrowing night that finally drives her from her old life. Director Mary Harron does an excellent job here, giving the scene the necessary impact without being explicit or cheaply exploitive. The mood and tone turn dark, and it seems unlikely we should be able to return to the light, slightly twisted nostalgia that opens the movie.
The director and screenwriters seem uncertain what to do with the unpleasant material, and it hangs uncomfortably over the rest of the movie. To what degree is the pin-up Page playing with sexuality and power? Is the sunny, cheerful abandon with which she enters the world of softcore fetish porn naïveté, or something worse?
Bettie’s past abuse does serve to establish a simplified dichotomy. The outwardly respectable men who abuse her contrast with the supposed perverts and pornographers who often treat her with great respect. Irving Klaw (played by Chris Bauer) points to society's hypocrisy when he compares his own films and photographs to images in mainstream media that exploit the same desires and prurient interests. The movie makes the same point again when it depicts 50s congressional hearings into pornography. Without overplaying their roles, the respectable men on the committee indicate that they have more than a passing interest in much of the material which they condemn.
The film’s greatest asset is Gretchen Mol, who plays the title character. She captures Bettie’s look and style. We see a likeable woman who conveys a beguiling air of innocence, even when posing for dark fantasies. She especially comes alive in the non-fetish nude shots. Perhaps she was, as photographer Bunny Yeager claims, a "true nudist;" perhaps she just enjoyed being naked and not in peril.
Her sensual yet amused manner contrasts with her attempts at mainstream acting success. Mol does not overplay Page as incompetent or grotesquely hammy in the scenes where the Pin-up Queen tries to be a serious actress, but merely uncomfortable and mediocre.
Most of the film appears in black-and-white, with the fine depth of focus this allows. Such shots obviously recall the mid-1950s setting, and much of Page’s work. In another nod to under-the-counter sleaze, one sequence has been shot to resemble old-style, home-movie color stock. Several scenes—-most notably those set in Florida—- appear in candy-bright faux Technicolor.
The director also makes brief use of stock footage to establish the era. It does not match well with the rest of the movie, but it serves its purpose.
The film follows Bettie to the end of her pin-up career, and the reemergence of her evangelical faith. She does not really convert, because she never abandoned her Christianity. However, something in her perspective changes and she is no longer willing to be photographed. By that point, it doesn’t much matter; the American government was cracking down on operations such as Klaw’s, and Bettie, now in her thirties, was past her prime by industry standards. The film does not mock her conversion, nor does it examine it. We see it as a fact, and the movie ends shortly thereafter. The film’s greatest failing, in fact, is its inability to suggest the depth of the life behind those "notorious" images.
We also see only cursory glimpses of Page’s relationships with men once she became "the pin-up queen of the universe," and only a little of her friendship with women. The film shows nothing of her later life, which was filled with difficulties. She experienced three failed marriages and suffered from psychiatric problems. Only in her 80s did she re-emerge and demonstrate that she’d made an uneasy peace with her pin-up past.
The film focuses on Bettie Page the icon, unofficial mascot for suburban BDSM clubs, and collectible action figure. The real woman remains something of an enigma, apparently even to these filmmakers.
Director: Mary Harron
Writers: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner
Gretchen Mol....Bettie Page
Chris Bauer....Irving Klaw
Jared Harris....John Willie
Sarah Paulson....Bunny Yeager
David Strathairn....Estes Kefauver
Lili Taylor....Paula Klaw