Director/Co-Screenwriter: Mary Harron
By Marilyn Ferdinand
From Yahoo! Answers, June 2007
Q: If you could fall madly and passionately in love with any cartoon character, who would that be and why?
The romantic animation fan who asked this question and the people who responded would understand completely the point of view of The Notorious Bettie Page that seems to have left many film critics and viewers rather cold. This nearly flawless film that tells the real-life story of Bettie Page, “Miss Pin-up Girl of the World of 1955,” is an accurate biopic that, nonetheless, has more in common with comic books than it does with conventional, character-based film narrative.
The sly, inventive style struck by director/writer Mary Harron and her coscreenwriter Guinevere Turner is nothing if not a tribute to the naughty comic books we see several furtive men pawing through in an adult bookstore at the opening of the film. The scene continues, frame by frame, as a tall man in a trenchcoat moves down the length of the shop until he reaches the back counter. He asks the shop owner if he has anything special. Something in shoes. The owner pulls out a glossy of a dark-haired woman wearing platform, lace-up boots. He asks for more. The owner pulls out some photos of women in bondage. Cut to a close-up of the man, an undercover cop, pulling out his badge. You can practically see the dialogue balloon inked in a shocking shout: “You’re Under ARREST!”
Harron and Turner also tip their pillbox hats to Douglas Sirk’s sexy, humorous soap operas as well as bland civil defense films—both popular, or at least ubiquitious, forms in the 1950s—through their mix of color and black-and-white sequences, their script full of the superficiality of melodrama, and the restrained emotions of their typical 1950s characters. And they do something more—they revive the flapper (Betty Boop edition) and the plucky woman of the pre-Code 1930s as they question today’s gender politics.
The film picks up the thread of the arrest as we watch Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) open hearings on pornography. We see the very pretty Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol) come down a hall and sit on a bench, awaiting her inquisition by the kind of god-fearing Tennessee native she grew up with. Her mind returns to her teen years in Depression-era Nashville, and the comically listless hellfire-and-damnation sermon of her church’s preacher (John Cullum). Young Bettie (Molly Moore) flirts with a boy across the aisle to the preacher’s narrative of sin and tortured damnation. This humorously foreshadows her rise to prominence as a pin-up who specializes in bondage and punishment.
Then the Perils of Pauline set in. There is a short, direct scene that suggests Bettie was sexually abused by her father. “Bettie, I want to see you upstairs,” her harsh father (Jack Gilpin) says to her. As he climbs up the stairs and out of the frame, a close-up of Bettie’s worried face says it all. Bettie, however, maintains her innocence. She accepts the invitation of a perfect stranger who walks up to her on the street and asks her to go dancing with him and another couple. When the car moves into an unfamiliar area, Bettie asks where they are going. Again, like a perfect comic-book villain, her “date” assumes a look of hate on his face. She is taken to be gang raped. We see her afterwards, two buttons neatly open at her neck, exposing her slip. She goes into a church and cries.
Even this experience teaches her little about men. She again agrees to go out with a man off the street if her strict mother will permit it. The man, Billy Neal (Norman Reedus), tells his buddy as he walks away from this first encounter that he intends to marry her. Their courtship, marriage, and divorce are chronicled in a montage. Bettie decides to make a new start in New York City. A fortuitous encounter on a beach with a picture-taking colored man named Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll)—another stranger—shows us Bettie’s natural posing style and easy sensuality. After being approached by a cop during this photo shoot—even though Tibbs claims to be a cop—he suggests that they confine their sessions to his home. During their first session, he decides to make a bold suggestion to Bettie. We’re all set to hear him tell her to take off her clothes, but instead he suggests she should wear her hair over her high forehead to reduce the shine off the lights and frame her face. When we next see Bettie, she’s answering phones as a receptionist sporting her now-famous fringe.
Through Tibbs, Bettie hooks up with the brother/sister pornographers, Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Harron regular Lili Taylor). Bettie’s first assignment is to pose in sky-high heels. A shot of feet moving slowly and precariously out of a dressing room and an ankle crumbling sideways, then two feet moving next to them (Paula holding Bettie up) is another comic moment—this time at the expense of shoe fetishists.
Bettie turns out to be a natural, projecting a sunny innocence within her perfect, desirable body. Each time she is asked to do something else—wear a tight corset, tie another girl up, pretend to spank another girl—she’s agreeable. She has started taking acting lessons and doesn’t really see the difference between playing a part for her class or a dominatrix for a magazine spread. The leather, girdles, whips, and leopard skins are costumes. She explains this to her boyfriend Marvin (Jonathan Woodward), an acting student who has no idea what kind of modeling she does, when he accompanies her to a party. He takes one look at the photos and calls them disgusting and the people who look at them even worse. Then the Klaws begin taking heat from the law, and Bettie is out of a job. Time for another new start.
In the second of two brilliant Technicolor fantasies right out of Sirk’s playbook, Bettie heads back to Florida, a place where she once vacationed and where she hooked up with nudie photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) and a handsome young man named Armand (Alejandro Chabán)—in reality Armand Walterson, Bettie’s second of three husbands. Still troubled, she walks along the beach, finally spying a neon cross floating above the treetops. She makes her way into the church and decides to be saved. She walks to the altar and kneels. The preacher prays for her. She says she has been reborn. “What did it feel like?” asks the preacher. “Like a lifting up,” replies Bettie. Another montage shows Bettie casting off her sexy persona, putting on loose clothing, and preaching on the streets.
People who knew Bettie said she was the nicest person they ever met, and indeed, Gretchen Mol’s performance is winning and natural. She possesses Bettie’s beauty and appears as comfortable posing nude or in restraints as Bettie always seemed. She doesn’t seem to agree to everything the Klaws ask of her just to please them. She really doesn’t see the harm. When Marvin tells her what the world perceives, it really comes as a huge jolt. He tries to contact her after she’s decided to head to Florida, but she pretends she’s not at home. She’s not sure he accepts her the way she accepts herself.
Bettie’s acting teacher, played by Austin Pendleton, teaches the Method. During one scene, she shows some good acting chops. He asks Bettie what emotion she drew from to play the part of a rejected woman. She says with as much naturalness as she takes off her clothes, “I thought of something that makes me really scared. I thought of God punishing me for all my sins.” The teacher, taken aback from his secular milieu, stammers “Wonderful!” It is this sense of religiosity, which in the South is a proud mark of independence, that may have helped Bettie preserve her sense of self even through her traumas early in life. But she does not define her modeling as sinning. Her attitude reminds me quite a lot of Evy in Luis Buñuel’s Southern masterpiece, The Young One.
The real Bettie Page
The Notorious Bettie Page is a confection with a potent message—a plea against censorship and for a woman’s right to control her body. To argue about the dangers of pornography—and remember this is about pornography, not prostitution—is to take Bettie Page to a place she never went. The film does look sympathetically at a father who claims a photo of Bettie trussed led to his son’s death, but it seems that perhaps the father did not know his son as well as he thought he did. That makes the incident tragic, but not evidence of a need for a ban.
In the end, Bettie sums it up best. When a man comes up to her while she is preaching and recognizes her, he wonders if she’s ashamed of what she did before. “No,” says Bettie, “After all, Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. After they sinned, they put on clothes.”