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Notorious Bettie Page, The Print E-mail
Friday, 14 April 2006
It’s an interesting coincidence that “The Notorious Bettie Page” and “Kinky Boots” (also reviewed on MHT) are being released at the same time. Perhaps there’s something in the atmosphere that makes it feel like this is a good moment for friendly, sympathetic films about wholesome, good-hearted people in the business of catering to those with out-of-the-ordinary tastes.

Bettie Page was a real-life ‘50s pin-up who became famous not only for her appearance in fetish shots and film shorts, but because of her air of extraordinary cheerfulness in the images. The film opens in the ‘50s, with a crackdown on a bookstore where pictures of Bettie, among others, are carried only behind the desk, then flashes back to Bettie’s upbringing in the ‘30s, where despite her religious upbringing, there’s a hint that her father may be molesting her. Bettie (Gretchen Mol) marries a young suitor, but when he starts smacking her around, she leaves. She survives an assault in Nashville and heads for New York City, where she earnestly studies acting, but finds she can make a bit of money modeling. Photographers find that Bettie is not averse to putting on “costumes” – i.e., corsets and kinky boots – or removing clothing when requested to do so. Bettie’s religious convictions give her occasional pause about her line of work, but the photographers themselves are more parental than lecherous, so that there’s a big disconnect, especially for Bettie, between posing and the effect she has on the people who ultimately buy the pictures.

“The Notorious Bettie Page” is surprisingly gentle and quizzical, observing without prejudice both Bettie’s aptitude for being open in front of the lens and her ultimate decision about her direction in life. Director Mary Harron and co-scenarist Guinevere Turner eschew a driving plotline, opting instead to give us a multitude of incidents that give us a sense of what Bettie’s life is like. Harron and Turner delight in the incongruous situations, especially when Bettie is working for Irving (Chris Bauer) and Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor); Irving is a perpetually stressed-out small businessman, while Paula could be a kindly office manager supervising a team of typists rather than taking photos of models tying each other up for the camera.
Mol has been made up to look very much like the real Page in her heyday, but more importantly, the actress radiates real star quality – her Bettie is such a sunny, cooperative, optimistic stunner that we understand why she generates such ardor. She makes the forays into mild S&M (mostly spanking) comedic – we see these sequences from Bettie’s point of view, where everything is so playful and silly that it’s difficult to imagine anyone could become engrossed in the images as serious sexual iconography, let alone as something that might warp young minds.

The filmmakers also give us a good sense of the atmosphere of the times, with David Strathairn somewhat book-ending his Oscar-nominated performance in “Good Night, and Good Luck” here in a turn as a judicial anti-porn crusader. The filmmakers employ actual transcripts of 1955 hearings, which are absurd in ways fiction wouldn’t dare invent.

Technically, “The Notorious Bettie Page” is intriguing. Director Harron goes for a true period look, shooting most of the film in high-contrast black-and-white, with occasional forays into saturated ‘50s-style color. Pains have been taken to create a sense of visual authenticity, giving it all a feeling of found (albeit fairly pristine) footage. Period music is used throughout, including performances by Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline, Eddie Arnold, Coleman Hawkins, Art Pepper, Hank Ballard, Lester Young and the Kansas City Six, Leroy Anderson, Fats Waller, Machito & His Afro-Cubans, Perez Prado, Charles Mingus, Jeri Southern and Julie London, suggesting that the soundtrack album might be worth acquiring. Sound mix is decent, though there are no show-stopping aural effects.

“The Notorious Bettie Page” does a fine job of giving a sense of time, place and social mores, with a fantastic central performance from Mol. It’s a novel and rather persuasive take on a singular woman’s adventures with a singular kind of stardom.

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