Beyond the Multiplex

"Bettie Page" director Mary Harron talks about why Bettie's topless shots were more joyous than erotic. Plus: Four movies kinda, sorta about sex.


Andrew O'Hehir
April 13, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)

Mary Harron has been described as looking like Martha Stewart. Like most of the jokes journalists make, that one's cheap and superficial. The difference between La Martha and the director of "The Notorious Bettie Page" (along with "American Psycho" and "I Shot Andy Warhol") is all a matter of "codes, signs and signals," to borrow a phrase Harron herself used late in our interview.

Harron meets me in a refrigerated hotel room in downtown Austin, Texas, on the day "The Notorious Bettie Page" will have its United States premiere. She's wearing a leopard-print jacket and a flared, pleated '50s-style skirt, and the effect is ladylike and edgy at the same time. Stewart could never pull it off. In another era, you might have called Harron a "classy dame," meaning that she's a handsome woman of indeterminate middle age (she's 49), with an impressive combination of manners, intelligence and bearing.

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Despite her slender body of work, Harron is one of the signature American independent filmmakers of the last decade, as well as an inspiration to late bloomers everywhere. Her movies straddle the sometimes-narrowing, sometimes-widening gap between the underground and the mainstream, Hollywood and the avant-garde. As we discussed in Austin, her influences range from the great Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel to Hollywood melodramatist Douglas Sirk to B-movie master Sam Fuller. (We didn't discuss Stanley Kubrick, who, to me at least, hovers over Harron's first two films like an unacknowledged father.)

She's a profoundly unromantic and unsentimental filmmaker, which has led some viewers to assume that her stance is one of chilly noncommitment, or that she seeks no emotional connection with her subjects or her audience. Harron still seems troubled by this reaction; in our conversation she worried that audiences would misunderstand her nonjudgmental and profoundly sympathetic portrayal of Bettie Page, the '50s pinup goddess portrayed memorably in the film by Gretchen Mol.

I suspect she can quit worrying. "The Notorious Bettie Page" is a gorgeous, glorious movie, packaging Mol's remarkable performance in lustrous black-and-white cinematography -- with some sequences shot in an enriched color process resembling Technicolor -- that captures the innocence and darkness of America in the '50s as no recent motion picture has. It should clearly be the biggest hit of Harron's career and mark a professional turning point for her. (Read Stephanie Zacharek's piece today about the film and the real-life Bettie Page.)

There have been a lot of those already. You wouldn't know it to look at her -- well, unless you can interpret those codes and signals -- but Harron was a pioneering rock journalist, present for the creation of the punk scene in London and New York. She interviewed the Ramones in 1975, when no one outside New York's Lower East Side had heard of them. (She was 19 at the time.) Some of her interviews appear in "Please Kill Me," Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's legendary oral history of New York punk -- and in a strange but appropriate turn of events, Harron is trying to adapt that book into a film.

The daughter of Canadian actor Don Harron, a staple of such '60s and '70s TV shows as "The FBI" and "Twelve O'Clock High" -- and a long-running performer on "Hee Haw," of all things -- Mary Harron was raised first in Toronto and then in London. She went to Oxford for a while (where she reportedly dated Tony Blair), then fled to New York, where she witnessed the dying days of disco and the dawn of punk, and wrote a long 1977 article in the Village Voice explaining London's exploding musical scene to New Yorkers. She has worked on documentaries for the BBC, PBS and Fox, once hosted a late-night British talk show, and briefly roomed with RuPaul in New York. Through all of it: the ladylike quality, and the edginess.

This history also suggests that for Harron, the ironic mode is not a too-cool-for-school affectation, but her inevitable manner of confronting the world. By background, by temperament and by breeding, she's a perpetual observer and outsider. While "The Notorious Bettie Page" is likely to be understood as her warmest film, it is nonetheless not easily categorized. It's about a proto-porn legend and contains significant nudity, but it's neither erotic in manner nor moralistic in tone.

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Harron's work could hardly be more different from that of Nicole Holofcener, whom I interviewed last week. But the fact that two of the spring season's most important indie releases were directed by women -- not just by women, but by middle-aged working mothers -- shouldn't go overlooked. While the movie world remains far from genuine gender equity, Harron and Holofcener are no longer anomalies. They've been allowed to build their careers gradually and organically (including taking time off for their family lives) and have emerged as two of the distinctive visionaries of American film. We've come a long way, baby.

Your previous films have really divided audiences and critics. Is that going to happen again this time around?

I'm always surprised. Even with "Bettie Page," which I thought was more likable, still people are really polarized. It's completely unexpected to me. With the other two, I was completely prepped for it. I understood: Some people are going to hate this. But with this movie, even showing a rough cut in screenings, people are very annoyed with what they see as a lack of psychology and a lack of explanation, that it's too kind of deadpan. Which was, you know, deliberate. Some people see this as a failure, because they think I was trying to make a traditional biopic and just didn't manage it.

So it's like they want you to render a judgment on Bettie? Or to explain exactly why she does what she does?

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I do think they want judgment. I think people are conditioned to want judgment. In biographical stories, they are conditioned for rise and fall, for moral lesson -- definitely for moral lesson. Especially if you're dealing with sexual stuff. And really, the Bettie Page story is so complicated -- you can't find a moral! What's the lesson in Bettie Page's story? The only one you can draw is that you shouldn't do bondage pictures, really. And I would not ever say that!

And they want explanation too. The other thing that people want to say is, "There must be a reason for this -- she did bondage because of her history of child abuse." But I don't actually think it worked that way. I think the child abuse played into her becoming a sex goddess. I absolutely believe that.

Well, you do include a scene from early in Bettie's life, when she was abducted and sexually assaulted. So if people want to look for that as an explanation of what she does later, I guess they can.

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I think people feel, "Well, if all these bad things happened to her, then why is it not discussed later?" When you get these reactions you wonder, what have I done wrong? Why are they not seeing what I see? But again, whatever people don't like, right or wrong, it was a choice. I mean, maybe I am wrong, but I wanted to do it in a real 1950s way, true to the period. Which means that she would not have talked about it, because she never did talk about it until she was in her 70s. Also, the way I saw Bettie was that she would suppress it, whatever emotion or pain she was going through. She might have some private grief and then damp it down. Her way of dealing with it would be just to not talk about it.

This is sort of self-justifying, but I think we're now so steeped in therapy culture, over the last 20 years. It's funny, going back into the '70s and trying to write a script for "Please Kill Me," we're constantly saying, "We can't say that. It's pre-therapy culture." It's just the dawn of it. The very dawn of it, but the culture wasn't soaked in that language. Everybody now thinks that if something traumatic happens to you, the way to deal with it is to get it out, is to cry, is to process it. And, you know, that's pretty new. That is not of that time. So it's kind of enigmatic in the case of Bettie.

Maybe the one thing I could have done is show more -- not of the sexual abuse, but of her lonely, loveless childhood, which does play into why she had this desperate need for attention. Which is really what explains her.

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You do communicate a lot of her emotional life without her saying anything. When she gets called to testify before the Senate commission on obscenity, and then she's not allowed to, we see that she's extremely upset. She's looking forward to testifying; she's not the least ashamed of anything she's done. That's much more effective than some concocted scene where she talks to someone about her childhood history of abuse or whatever.

Which I don't think she would have had the language for, or even the ability, the mechanism for standing outside of herself that way. Now, with TV, everybody learns how to analyze themselves, how to stand back and process their own emotional material.

My mother was a '50s woman, and I had a stepmother [Catherine McKinnon] who was a Hollywood starlet in the '50s. She and my father divorced when I was 14, but she was a starlet at Fox. I knew something of that world, and I was interested in '50s women because of those figures in my life. I was interested in what life was like for women then, and, particularly in the case of my stepmother, what life was like for those poor girls who were very beautiful.

Wow, so there was really a personal motivation for you to tell this story.

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It's sort of hard to know. I'm sure that played into it somehow. Also, when I was doing "I Shot Andy Warhol" -- Valerie Solanas was actually a little bit older than the '60s generation. She was in college in the '50s. When I was researching that, I spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library -- pre-Internet, you know -- just going through '50s magazines, the magazines that would have been around when she was in college. Kind of soaking up some of what it meant to be a woman then, revisiting that. People just don't know now what a radically, totally other world it was. And I was very interested in re-creating that time, just to take you back.

You have a lot of black-and-white archival footage in the film that's just amazing. Wonderful New York street scenes from the '50s, all kinds of stuff I've never seen before. That alone is going to keep me going back to the DVD, years from now.

About 15 years ago I did a documentary for the BBC with Legs McNeil as the presenter, based on a story he had written for Spin called "The Last Days of Times Square." I got dragged around with Legs, and I did a lot of historical research into footage of Times Square. So when I came to write the scenes for this, I remembered that there was all this phenomenal black-and-white footage. Sadly, most of it isn't available on film now. They've transferred all those archives to digital, so it's hard, when you're actually making a film, to find stuff that still looks good.

A certain kind of film buff is going to absolutely go nuts for this movie. It's like a real old-school movie. I know you used optical wipes instead of digital editing; in fact, this might be the last movie ever made with optical wipes! And the super-enriched color photography looks great.

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Mott Hupfel, my director of photography, found this stock -- there's an article in American Cinematographer where he talks about this. We wanted Technicolor, and you can't get it. Maybe there's some in Eastern Europe, or maybe in China. So he found a stock that had been discontinued that looks almost like Technicolor, and then it's really all about the lighting. You have these banks of light everywhere, including on the beach, like in Miami.

Yeah. You used banks of lights even when you were shooting in daylight, right?

Oh, yeah. Even on the beach in Miami. You're trying to flatten it out and make everything pop, and give it that crazy Douglas Sirk look. Both like a travelogue and like a Douglas Sirk movie. We hadn't talked about Douglas Sirk until we were shooting in the church. I looked at the monitors and went, "Oh my God, this really does look like Sirk."

For the black-and-white, we looked at a lot of Sam Fuller. Mott said, "I think the films you're looking for are not real independent cinema, but like the outsider Hollywood directors." Like Sam Fuller, or like Orson Welles in his B-movie period, when he had to make things like "The Stranger," an incredible-looking movie with a stupid script. And, of course, "Touch of Evil." And you know what else we looked at? Buñuel's Mexican period.

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That's a great comparison. I wouldn't have thought of that, but now that you say it...

He's doing a certain kind of melodrama, but it's not because it's Buñuel. I guess we were trying to use melodrama, but do it a bit more offhand. His "Wuthering Heights" -- we looked at that one. It's not a great, great Buñuel movie, but it's an interesting movie, and just the way it's shot is great. I think he's using Mexican soap-opera stars or something, so it's very intense and strange. And then we looked, just because I love it -- and you can't really compare it -- at Fassbinder's "Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant." Just because it's women and dressing up and shoes. That's one of my favorite movies.

Frankly, I was skeptical when I heard that Gretchen Mol would play the part. I just didn't think she'd be interesting enough. I know you've said she just came in and knocked your socks off at the audition, and now I know why. I kept thinking about William Blake's running theme of "Innocence and Experience." Bettie Page has to reflect both things at once. Somehow -- I don't know how -- Mol really captures that. The fundamental innocence, and then the other thing. The hunger.

Yes. The need, the need. And the joy of the spotlight. Someone who is like a child playing, and at the same time completely needing it, like it's the sun. And then there's, I think, a little sadness. There has to be an undercurrent of sadness. A lot of people came in who were just like sexy or upbeat or something. And Gretchen was kind of wistful, kind of sad, a little bruised emotionally. You know, I think she brought her own sadness. I don't want to say this too much, but she brought in her own experience of the glamour world, and of some hard times. Maybe if she'd become a star the first time around, she wouldn't have brought so much to the role.

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So she really understood, and then she herself is a bit like that. She is a very innocent and sweet person, genuinely spontaneous and friendly and sweet. But not stupid, she's smart. And somehow she retains her innocence against all experience. You know, there are people like that. I think people find that odd in Bettie.

There's another interesting quality here. We see Bettie, or anyway Gretchen playing Bettie, both topless and totally nude. She looks beautiful, but not only is this not a particularly erotic or sexy film, it never even comes close to becoming one. Yet it's got more nudity than many pictures that are frankly sexual.

I never felt it was right to show sex in this movie. It just seemed completely wrong. You didn't want to see her having sex. Of course she had sex with her boyfriends, but it just seemed completely wrong, like it would spoil it, to go there. This really is a film about her as a photographed object. In early versions of the script, we had loads about her first husband, Billy Neal. We met with him before he died. But even though they had kind of an interesting relationship, the story never lifted off the ground until it got to New York. Suddenly she's on the beach [at Coney Island, where a chance encounter with a photographer changed her life] and then it took off.

It's about her and her photographs, her and her desires. What's it like to be that person? I felt like you never saw this kind of story told from that person's point of view. I think you could say, oh, ultimately she's an exhibitionist and her greatest satisfaction came from being photographed. But it's not a sexual experience in that direct way. It's like her most enormous sense of satisfaction and excitement and delight -- where she was most lifted up, she says -- was about being photographed.

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I feel like in her photographs she isn't really all sexy. I know everybody finds them sexy. What she's projecting isn't exactly sexiness. It's more joy. Her own joy. At one point my little girls came to the set, when we were doing hair and makeup tests -- at that point they were like 4 and 7 -- and just the way they looked at themselves in the mirror, they're just so fascinated by themselves, posing for the mirror. I said to Gretchen, "You should watch them. They're just in their own world. There's something of Bettie in that."

"The Notorious Bettie Page" opens April 14 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco; April 21 in Austin, Texas, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle and Washington; and April 28 in Boulder, Colo., Hartford, Conn., Houston, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Calif., Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., Sacramento, Calif., and Salt Lake City, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Depardieu and Ardant's three-way with "Nathalie"; Caveh Zahedi's "I Am a Sex Addict"; an upbeat African docu; and a grotesque Russian triumph

So the theme in this overcrowded week seems to be movies not quite about sex. There are more nominees than I can count in the competition for Greatest Unjustly Ignored Director in the Universe (or GUIDU, pronounced "guide-you"), but one of my personal faves is the French writer-director Anne Fontaine, whose gripping and genre-defying new flick, "Nathalie," will be reaching a select few North American eyeballs shortly. Her inside-out existential mystery from 2001, "How I Killed My Father," remains one of my favorite movies of this decade, and I suspect "Nathalie" will weather just as well.

You can start by saying that Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant are the leading players, and already it doesn't matter that the story -- a middle-class, middle-aged couple whose marriage has turned stale -- has been told 10,000 times. Both are terrific in an understated Everyperson mode; Fontaine herself is a former actress who combines a formidable intellect with an unusual understanding of dramatic craft. All right, it's tough to understand why anybody married to a woman like Ardant -- who still cuts a breathtaking figure in her mid-50s -- would be seeking fulfillment elsewhere, as Bernard (Depardieu) evidently is, but let's suspend our disbelief.

Haunted by her husband's careless infidelities, Catherine (Ardant) increasingly feels that she doesn't know Bernard -- she doesn't know what he's doing, or with whom, or why. Does he have sexual desires she isn't fulfilling? Does he like trashy blondes, or upright career women like her? How does he meet and seduce women? How do they seduce him? What emerges from this sounds outlandish but flows inevitably from the film's emotional logic: Catherine ultimately hires a prostitute (Emmanuelle Béart), whom she code-names Nathalie, to meet Bernard and lure him into a relationship.

Pallid and dead-eyed, beautiful in the manner of a snake or a predatory bird (at least in her professional mode), Béart is as good as the two leads. At Catherine's instruction, Nathalie is to dress down, to avoid being too flirty or forward, to lead Bernard on but not to go too far. Needless to say, things don't go quite as planned, but I shouldn't say much more. As in "How I Killed My Father," you never know quite where you are in Fontaine's universe. "Nathalie" becomes a complicated three-handed game, far more concerned with the narcissistic, pornographic and mutually manipulative relationship between Catherine and Nathalie than with the latter's purported affair with Bernard. If you live in New York, run, don't walk to see this on the big screen, because it won't be there long. (Opens April 14 at Cinema Village in New York. DVD release will follow May 2.)

Caveh Zahedi is a skinny, slightly bug-eyed guy with almost a feminine manner and something of Buster Keaton's put-upon comic style. He's been a borderline indie filmmaker for years, well enough liked but a bit too peculiar for success. A self-effacing, self-aggrandizing, constantly digressing performer, he's always been his own strongest asset, and Zahedi himself is the reason to see "I Am a Sex Addict," his seriocomic, quasi-fictionalized story about his own life as, well, you know. On one level, you're like, this guy? This guy had enough sex to qualify as a sex addict? This guy is straight? And then you think, of course -- it's exactly this kind of feckless, compulsively honest, feminist-friendly dude who might have a deep need to patronize skanky prostitutes.

Zahedi constantly interrupts the action of his movie, such as it is, to fill in back story or apologize for the ultra-low budget. As he explains, the scenes meant to be set in Paris are mostly shot in San Francisco (where he lives), and a crucial blow job scene has to be narrated rather than performed, because the actress involved wouldn't simulate the act on camera. This is quite amusing, for a while. In fairness, "I Am a Sex Addict" is amusing almost all the way to the end, and Zahedi is fearless about discussing the less savory aspects of his addiction. (Compulsively grabbing the breasts of massage-parlor hostesses, in the manner of an aggressive toddler, was a particular favorite.)

But for all the clever chitchat and imaginative cheapo animation; all the file footage of fed-up ex-girlfriends; all the conversations with hookers in French, Italian, German and English; and all the meta-discussion of the bizarre process of making a movie about your own life (the woman Zahedi cast to play his first wife turned out, in real life, to be a porn star), "I Am a Sex Addict" does little beyond proving the premise of its title. Zahedi used to inflict his passive-aggressive self-involvement on his wives, girlfriends and various prostitutes. Now, juiced up and postmodernized, it's become art. This film is an inevitable product of our age, and enjoyable, right up to whatever your ickiness threshold is. But part of me prefers the gray-suited businessman who visited hookers after work and didn't have to tell the rest of us about it. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York, with more cities to follow. Also available via IFC's video-on-demand service on some cable systems.)

My early candidate for breakout feel-good documentary of the year is "Sisters in Law," which presents a corner of rural Africa as, of all things, a functioning civil society. In Kumba, an English-speaking town in Cameroon, Christians and Muslims are getting along and two fearless female officials, prosecutor Vera Ngassa and court president Beatrice Ntuba, are cracking down on abusive husbands, child abusers and rapists. There have been no domestic-violence convictions in Kumba for 17 years, but when two different Muslim women bring charges against their husbands, Ngassa and Ntuba see an opportunity to enforce the law and change local culture.

Directors Florence Iyisi and Kim Longinotto (the latter made "Divorce Iranian Style") never try to drive home the larger lessons behind the cases Ngassa and Ntuba pursue, but they don't have to. The women of Kumba are very well aware that they find themselves at a point of collision between so-called traditional mores and "Western" values of human rights, individualism and feminism, and they have no doubt where they stand.

Some of the cases in "Sisters in Law," especially the story of a 6-year-old girl viciously abused by her aunt, for no reason in particular, are hard to watch. But even that grievously wounded little girl is lucky to be living in Kumba. When 90 percent of what we hear from Africa is doom and gloom -- overpopulation, poverty, environmental degradation and economic exploitation -- it can be hard to remember that the people of that continent are not passive, pathetic victims but human beings working to improve their lives and build a future. This is a story of real heroism that will leave you weeping, laughing and singing. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York, with more cities to follow.)

Have you heard the one about the meat salesman, the hooker and the piano tuner, who all walk into a Moscow bar at 3 a.m.? Believe me, you haven't. Against all odds, the extraordinary Russian film "4" has been held over for a second week at Cinema Village in New York. Go if you can, and if you can't, that's what online DVD-geek services are for. An ambitious, grotesque and borderline-surreal work, Ilya Khrzhanovsky's debut feature veers from a semi-erotic mood piece, wherein the above characters spin tall tales in the predawn hours, to a nightmarish satire of Russian rural life, featuring a village where hideous (and bawdy) old crones make dolls for tourists out of chewed-up bits of bread.

That's without going into the symbolic importance of dogs in the film, or the gruesome running gags about meat, or the anecdote about Stalin and Khrushchev's secret human-cloning project, or the scariest nude scene you'll ever see. (OK, that's a tie with Carlos Reygadas' "Battle in Heaven.") I don't know that "4," which was written by the veteran Russian avant-gardist Vladimir Sorokin, adds up to anything like a coherent narrative, but I doubt it's supposed to. It's another blast of vibrant, vicious, gloomy electricity from the always-surprising Russian film scene, and the beginning of an important career.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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