"The Notorious Bettie Page"

This tender look at the life of Bettie Page -- played by a fearless, gorgeous Gretchen Mol -- gets intimate without demystifying the pinup icon.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published April 13, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

There are so many Bettie Pages that, in telling the story of Page's life -- or even just one version of that story -- it must be hard for a filmmaker to be sure she's got the right woman. There's Bettie in a scanty black bathing suit, her breasts outlined by wreaths of daisies; Bettie in a spontaneous holiday snap, dressed in clam diggers and a cotton blouse, the very same uniform our own moms and grandmothers might have worn on casual summer days; Bettie in a black corset and patent-leather platforms not made for walking, trussed in contortions so elaborate that it would take a Boy Scout to figure out how to undo the strings. (I've always wondered if the most elaborate bondage knots weren't invented by former Boy Scouts.)

Bettie Page is a person we know only from photographs: After becoming the most famous and beloved pinup model of the 1950s, she left the profession suddenly and disappeared almost entirely, leading a quiet (though often very troubled) life as a devout Christian. Although some people never forgot Bettie, she reemerged as a cult figure in the late '80s, perhaps partly because Third Wave feminists were less uptight about the pinup aesthetic than their forebears had been.

But there's an even broader explanation for her reemergence: The obvious sexual frisson of her pictures aside, it's very hard for anyone to actively dislike Bettie Page. Her short, dark bangs may have been her trademark, but her incandescent smile was just as much of a calling card. A camera subject of nearly supernatural charm, she welcomed the male gaze only to playfully melt it into a pile of helpless neutrons. The many pictures she's given us show a woman of supreme self-possession, one who took pleasure in facing the camera lens squarely. There was never any danger that the camera, or even the guys who would ultimately ogle the pictures, could take anything away from her.

Mary Harron's deeply affectionate and subversively brainy "The Notorious Bettie Page" humanizes Page without demystifying her. Harron and her star, the astonishing Gretchen Mol, understand that we don't want our Bettie Page to be demystified: There may be some literal-minded purists who'll complain that Harron doesn't address the hardships Page faced in later life (including some mental-health problems that required her to be institutionalized for a time). But Harron's approach shows respect for the mirror figures of the mythical Bettie Page, the one we know so well from the treasure trove of pictures she's left for us to enjoy, and the real one, who, now in her 80s, lives quietly in Southern California. Harron's movie asks, and answers, the question of what the camera can tell us about a life. As one of Page's photographers, Bunny Yeager (played by Sarah Paulson), says in the movie -- and as Yeager has said in real life -- "When she's nude, she doesn't seem naked." Bettie Page's spirit transcends traditional feminist ideology, cutting straight past perceived ideas of how women should or shouldn't pander to men's sexual appetites. Her pictures are so elemental, so lacking in guile, that they often seem to be less "about" sex than about a pure state of being -- maybe even a state of grace. No wonder Page, even long after she left modeling and became deeply religious, never denounced her past. Mol's Bettie explains, "I'm not ashamed. Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. When they sinned, they put on clothes."

"The Notorious Bettie Page" -- which was written by Harron and Guinevere Turner, the writer, producer and star of the 1992 film "Go Fish" -- maps a landscape of joy and pleasure in the face of prudery and repression. The picture was shot by Mott Hupfel, largely in lush black-and-white, but in certain sections it bursts into color, like a tropical flower.

Page didn't have an easy life: She was sexually abused by her father (a fact the movie delicately alludes to, without milking the young Page's suffering for dramatic effect), and as a young woman was the victim of a gang rape. Harron doesn't soft-pedal the unhappier aspects of Page's early life, but she doesn't treat them as glaring signposts either, maybe because Page herself never did. The movie gives a clear picture of Page's early years while being careful not to suggest any clear-cut cause and effect. Page, born in Nashville, just missed out on being valedictorian of her high school class (she skipped an art class), and lost a valuable scholarship because of it. She attended teachers college and married young (the marriage ended in divorce), later moving to New York City. After being discovered by an amateur photographer, she began posing for clubs made up of hobbyist shutterbugs, who had a blast snapping pictures of Bettie clad in relatively chaste bathing costumes: As Bettie, Mol prances and mugs for the camera, clearly suggesting that Bettie treated the whole thing as a frolic, and not as exploitation. That isn't hard to comprehend: These camera clubs were made up of nerdy guys who were, of course, completely happy to be in the company of a skimpily clad woman, but who'd be reprimanded if they so much as grazed her ankle while describing how they wanted her to pose.

"The Notorious Bettie Page" is a true feminist movie, but one that avoids cant and facile theories about victimization. Harron and Turner find a great deal of friendly good humor in the Bettie Page story, and Harron has framed that story beautifully: When Bettie first shows up at the studios of Irving and Paula Klaw, the brother-and-sister team who specialized in fetish and bondage photos for a specialized audience (they're played here, marvelously, by Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor), Irving waves Bettie and another model past the leather costumes and riding crops and urges them to have some lunch: "You hungry? We got some sandwiches over there." And Paula, before, during and after these rather unorthodox (but totally goofy) photo sessions, flutters around Bettie with obvious protectiveness: In her tailored blouses and jangly charm bracelets, she's a sophisticated rockabilly den mom. Even legendary fetishist photographer and illustrator John Willie, played by the superbly scruffy Jared Harris, comes off as a human being and not a caricature. At one point during a bondage session, he removes a gag from Bettie's mouth when she begins to show obvious distress -- not because she feels discomfort in this outlandish gear, but because Willie is singing a song with dirty lyrics that troubles her. They end up in a casual theological discussion about the nature of God and what he wants for us on this earth.

In the mid-'50s, the Klaws came under the scrutiny of Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn, in a very un-Edward R. Murrow role), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. (The investigation ultimately destroyed the Klaws' business.) In one scene, a grieving father testifies, telling how he found his son -- a former Boy Scout, incidentally -- dead, tied up in a position that he was certain had been inspired by pornographic material.

Harron dramatizes the hearings in a way that doesn't make them seem antiquated or corny. While most of us feel comfortable with the cheesecake erotica Bettie Page posed for, including the mostly lighthearted bondage photos, "The Notorious Bettie Page" subtly makes the point that even today, we're not wholly accepting of the idea of pornography. While most Americans of a liberal bent claim to support free speech, it's astonishing how many people still show suspicion about pornography. Last year Pamela Paul, in her book "Pornified," claimed that use of pornography "causes" men to become detached from and indifferent to their woman partners. Is that so different from a father claiming that a picture inspired his son to a level of kink that ultimately killed him? Harron doesn't allow us to comfortably distance ourselves from that distinction. She doesn't make that man's naiveté a mere relic of the repressive '50s.

Even though we may now see Bettie Page as a relatively tame figure, the movie never underestimates her fearlessness. And Harron has found a correspondingly fearless actor in Gretchen Mol. In one of the movie's pivotal scenes, Bettie poses for one of the young club members, in a sunny, secluded park. She stands among the leafy trees, a goddess of muscles and curves, turning this way and that so her friend can capture her at her best. It's fitting that '50s jazz -- from the silkworm slinkiness of Art Pepper to the comma-laden extended phrases of Clifford Brown and Max Roach -- figures prominently on the soundtrack to "The Notorious Bettie Page." As Mol plays her, Bettie is completely in the moment when she's in front of the lens: More than just a woman who knew how to stand or smile, she's the music behind the pictures.

In this scene, Bettie is having so much fun that she suggests to the photographer that she's willing to take off her bathing-suit top. It is, after all, just a little piece of fabric. The photographer, who can't believe his luck, says, "Why not?" Then Bettie takes her bottoms off too, exposing everything. The photographer, just as nervous as he is delighted, explains that she'll have to stand in such a way that she won't expose that -- the notion of immodesty (or illegality) hasn't even occurred to her.

Mol plays the scene with such openness that I gasped out loud: Like Page herself, she was nude, and yet she didn't seem naked. For a split second, before I fully registered what I was seeing, I simply believed I was looking at a garden-variety fabulous-looking woman, only without clothes -- as if that were the sort of thing that happens every day of my life.

But I still haven't quite plumbed the multiple layers of what Mol is doing here: She plays Bettie's lack of self-consciousness with the kind of boldness that you rarely see in young actresses these days. In a world where many actresses still won't do a sex scene without the protection of an artfully draped sheet, Mol holds nothing back, emotionally or physically.

But the brazen joyousness of that scene is balanced by another, later one, which takes place after Bettie has become a successful nude model, in photos ranging from schoolgirl-tame to fetishistic: Bettie is taking acting lessons (the teacher is played by the wonderful Austin Pendleton), and during a class exercise in which she's required to sit quietly, doing absolutely nothing, she begins, without thinking about it, to peel off her clothes. The teacher stops her, but the look on her face is one of bewilderment: For Bettie, taking off her clothes is completely natural.

Mol plays the scene not as a lost little girl who's been conditioned to please men, but as a woman who's recognizing for the first time that her openness about her own body makes others uncomfortable. And in a much later scene, her boyfriend, Marvin (Jonathan Woodward), who didn't know the exact nature of some of the work Bettie had been doing, finally sees some of the fetish pictures and confronts her with them. "It's disgusting," he tells her, and Mol's face registers not shame but, again, a kind of hurt bewilderment. Mol plays Bettie as a woman who refuses to punish herself, but who comes to recognize that there are plenty of people around who'll do it for her.

It can't have been lost on Mol -- it certainly isn't lost on Harron -- that Bettie is treated like a commodity only when she's auditioning for "legitimate" acting; when she's posing for nudie or bondage photos, she's treated with the ultimate respect. I can't help wondering if Mol understands Bettie Page because she learned a similar lesson herself, the hard way. Strangely enough -- or perhaps not -- it's often so-called feminists who are the first to criticize young woman actors for "exploiting" their sexual attractiveness, even though looking at beautiful people is one of the chief pleasures of moviegoing, and has been since the beginning. When Mol appeared in a filmy dress on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1998, very early in her career, I recall, in the media and in casual conversation (more so, I'm afraid, with women than with men), hearing Mol spoken of as if she were a cheap piece of merchandise. People didn't know who she was; she hadn't yet proven herself. How dare she appear on the cover of a major magazine with semi-exposed nipples? Surely she couldn't be a serious actress. The blatant subtext of those comments was that there couldn't possibly be much more we needed to know about her.

It seemed strange that people's vitriol was directed not at the Hollywood "system" -- a weird world in which all actors face certain pressures as they advance their careers, and as they age -- but at Mol herself. And since that infamous Vanity Fair cover, Mol has given terrific performances in movies virtually no one has seen, among them Paul Schrader's fine noir melodrama "Forever Mine" (which was never released theatrically but is worth seeking out on DVD).

Mol's portrayal of Bettie Page is likely to at last earn her the recognition she deserves, not least because it flies in the face of the stupid common wisdom that an actress who takes off her clothes is taking the easy way out. The reality is that stripping down is quite difficult to do (and it's harder for some actresses than others), not least because it demands complete unself-consciousness -- a state of being that's hard to fake. "The Notorious Bettie Page" is a picture that's fully open to some pretty rough truths. But it's also a joyful, heartfelt movie, one that speaks to the openness and vitality we see in Bettie's pictures. Those pictures may tell us nothing about the particular sadness of Page's life, but they nonetheless tell us so much about who she was. In the world of "The Notorious Bettie Page," Bettie is naked in the Garden of Eden forever, eternally carefree and unashamed. Saved by the camera lens, she's found everlasting life.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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