|Notorious Bettie Page, The|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 26 September 2006|
I’ve been fascinated by Bettie Page for years. I can’t really remember where I first saw her images—hot poses that were somehow laced with self-deprecating humor as if she and her viewers were sharing a private joke. I’ve always viewed her as sexy, but not a sex object. Betty was always the kind of girl I felt certain I’d like to get to know. And weirdly enough, it’s always seemed that getting to know her would be easier than getting to know Marilyn Monroe, who was a contemporary and attracting the same kind of male attention.
There was always something of the girl-next-door about Bettie Page—a feeling that if you left your house at just the right moment you’d be able to spot her either arriving or departing—but only for a moment because she’d be gone while you were still trying to think of something to say. She always struck me as someone who stayed busy.
Then, without warning, back in the late 1950s, she just disappeared. No one seemed to know where she went. Until Richard Foster published his book, “The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About The Queen Of The Pinups”, no one knew that Bettie was in a mental institution in California for ten years, and lived almost penniless after getting out of the business and starting to work at a church.
Foster’s book was referenced for a lot of the material in “The Notorious Bettie Page”, the movie loosely based on the pinup girl’s tumultuous life. However, much of the actual story was left out of the movie as well. Such as when, in the 1990s, Bettie was incredibly poor and nearing bankruptcy, Hugh Hefner—of “Playboy”—bailed her out because he’s always had his own fascination of Bettie.
The movie opens in the 1950s with the Senate investigation into the “pornography” business, dramatically hitting fetish photographer Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) right in the pocketbook and effectively putting him out of business. Bettie (Gretchen Mol), dressed in a secretarial outfit but still turning the heads of the men in the outside hallways, sits quietly and waits to be called for her opportunity to testify. After all, during this time she’s become the #1 pinup girl in the United States and was being painted just as guilty of the decay of the moral fiber of the nation as Klaw was.
Filmed mostly in black-and-white, “The Notorious Bettie Page” begins with a flashback to Bettie’s childhood years in Tennessee; even then she hoped to become a model. Although the movie deals with the subject tastefully and never brings it to the forefront, Bettie was sexually preyed upon by her father. So were her sisters.
Her college years are shown in a whirlwind that focuses more on her failed marriage to Billy Neal (Norman Reedus) than in anything else. The abuse is shown on the screen but not emphasized. Shortly after, still innocent and hopeful, Bettie is lured into a car and gang-raped by a bunch of young men. For someone so harshly treated because of her sex, it seems hard to believe that she would take up the sex trade.
However, as depicted here—and in other biographies of Bettie Page—the young woman didn’t see the pinups as the sex trade. They were just photographs that interesting and powerful men wanted and could afford to pay for. That innocence, given the times and Bettie’s background, is entirely believable. She just truly had horrible luck with men.
Gretchen Mol plays Bettie Page. According to the studio and Ms. Mol, she had to gain 20 pounds to put Bettie’s voluptuous curves in place. She looks fantastic in the movie, not quite Bettie, but something uniquely her own while being so reminiscent it’s uncanny.
The black-and-white film work is terrific, and creates an air of nostalgia that is amazing. Nearly all of the poses familiar to any fan of Bettie Page’s who’s seen the coffee table books, comics, post cards, tee shirts, and coffee cups, are included in the movie. It’s almost surreal watching those sequences come to life on the screen. The Christmas scene with Bunny Yeager is the epitome of that feeling, though, and Sarah Paulson’s delivery of Bunny’s character is awesome.
The highlight of the pinup years, though, has to be Irving Klaw. As played by Chris Bauer, Klaw is depicted as very much a family-oriented businessman instead of the sex-monger as the Kefauver Hearings tried to demonstrate as being. In fact, and this is shown in the movie as well, Klaw never shot nude pictures of his models, always insisting on the women wearing two pairs of panties so they couldn’t be seen through. His sister, Paula (Lili Taylor) is real and natural too.
David Straithairn (“Good Night, And Good Luck.”) plays Estes Kefauver with a straight-laced delivery that nails the constrictive views of the 1950s in just a few short minutes. Austin Pendleton plays the acting teacher, and he’s somewhat mirroring what was going on with Method acting back in those days, but he really doesn’t come across well in the film. Jared Harris plays John Willie, one of the two men who commissioned Klaw to produce the bondage films that made Bettie Page so famous. Jonathan Woodward stars as Marvin, Bettie’s boyfriend during her pinup days, and does a good job in a supportive manner at first, then as someone who disapproves of what she’s doing.
The soundtrack for the movie is awesome, slipping in breezy numbers with more serious and moody ones. In particular, Jeri Southern’s “An Occasional Man” really fits Bettie’s first sojourn down to Miami Beach where she meets Armand Walterson (not completely identified in the movie for whatever reasons). The musical touches were really nice, and a surround sound system is a plus.
Although light in special features, “The Notorious Bettie Page” offers an audio commentary with Gretchen Mol, Writer/Director Mary Harron, and Writer Guinevere Turner. The three women sound like they just had the greatest time putting the movie together, then commenting on it. The “Presenting Betty Page: A Provocative Performance” stars Bettie itself and is mesmerizing, demonstrating again there was something very unique about her as a young woman.
The DVD is a great addition to the shelves of Bettie Page fans, and it stands as a good piece to show what the times were like, and what the social mores were. As a biopic, “The Notorious Bettie Page” doesn’t show Bettie’s whole life, but it shows enough of it to flavor her story. And, in a weird way, the movie isn’t voyeuristic, but tends to be more uplifting and empowering, the story of an individual strong enough to find her own place in the world and make no excuses for it.