The Notorious Bettie Page

The Notorious Bettie Page


Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

I'll bet good money that the glamour and bondage photos of Bettie Page have cropped up in your life at some point.

Well, maybe not directly, but the reverberation of her legacy since the Fifties throughout contemporary culture will have got to you. From instigating moral debates on pornography to influencing mainstream fashions and the diva pop of Madonna, the risque images of Bettie have affected millions of us. Didn't know? Well, to be fair for years neither did she.

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Enlightening us is director Mary Harron's first feature since American Psycho (2000), although here she's probing an infinitely more salubrious and sane mind than Patrick Bateman's. Starting with Bettie's early years in Tennessee, she's seen to be the playfully archetypal God-fearing girl-next-door. Established early on, it's an element of Bettie's personality that stayed with her throughout her modelling career, no matter what the pose, cementing her iconic image.

However, by both obliquely and blatantly portraying abuses the young Bettie suffers at the hands of trusted males, Harron provides a darker background to her quiet acceptance of circumstances and good-natured wholesomeness.

Independently minded for her times, Bettie falls in with a crowd of ever so polite amateur photographers and finds her calling in front of the camera, an ever-keen and vibrant model. When a few topless shots are suggested, that's fine with her; then so is full nudity. She really just appears to enjoy inhabiting the photographic experience.

Soon, such a keen, accommodating model comes to the attention of the entrepreneurial Klaws (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor) and she starts to take part in bondage, S&M and fetish photos and similarly staged home movies. With magazine and mail order distribution, Bettie is quickly immortalised as the world's first bondage model and an erotic icon.

Then, at the height of her fame, she mysteriously disappears from the media spotlight, although not before her now legendary poses have been debated by a US senate committee investigation into public decency, pornography and sexual taboos.

As with Christian Bale's Bateman and Lili Taylor's Valerie Solanas in Harron's other intelligent biopic, I Shot Andy Warhol, the film insists upon a bravura central performance. Gretchen Mol delivers. Not only does she uncannily resemble Bettie, especially with her revered black "bangs" hairstyle, she affects the character completely. From conveying a natural vitality in the photo shoots to exploring depths with understated, fading smiles, asides and immersive eyes, it's a serious, multi-faceted and bravely full frontal portrayal. It's worthy of awards - but would the Academy go for the subject matter?

Mol's commitment is matched by Harron's stylistic tour-de-force direction. Episodically the director deftly recreates some of Bettie's more celebrated photo shoots (from the S&Ms to her time with Bunny Yaeger, played by Sarah Paulson), determinedly keeping these central to Bettie's character, rather than being mere photographic exercises in themselves. But the real skill is in cinematically recreating the look and feel of her time.

Harron combines gritty black-and-white stretches with exuberant Technicolor episodes and Super 8 home movies to convey the changing period through which Bettie was living and experiencing. Similar to Good Night, And Good Luck in its era evoking intention, but much more personalising, Harron just about contains her artistic verve not to dominate, but become integral to and truly enhance Bettie's story.

Her other great strength is to use this cinematographic trickery to develop the film's underlying arguments. Given the porn plethora on the high streets, the Internet free-for-all and weekly paedophile alerts these days, Bettie's exploits certainly do seem tame. At the time though there was a furious reaction from the authorities and a puritanical rejection by "mainstream" society. Harron is highlighting the differences (and some similarities) between Bettie's epoch and our own and while there are some laughs to be had with this, the film conjures up serious questions that should rattle those whose only interest is naive titillation.

On a personal level, was Bettie used and abused as a model? Or, given that she has been heralded as a feminist icon by some quarters and has swathes of males subservient to her image, who's controlling whom? Those lads sniggering in the aisles would do well to remember some of Bettie's formative experiences. Can there ever be pawn-less porn?

Like Kinsey, The Notorious Bettie Page punctuates how far discussions and expressions of all forms of sexuality are now in the open, compared to the hysterical repression 50 years ago, and alludes to pornography's role in this. Without passing judgement, or being nostalgic, Harron suggests that whilst it is certainly positive that societies are more accepting and enlightened, the progression is not without its risks, victims and a need for boundaries. Whilst the senate investigation, led by a sonorous David Strathairn, was heavy-handed and restrictive in intent, it had a role in shaping the debate. And debate this film will certainly stimulate on its release.

An intelligently handled, well acted and imaginatively directed take on a modern icon and her place in today's world.

Reviewed on: 04 Aug 2006
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Era evoking and provoking with the Fifties S&M pin-up
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Read more The Notorious Bettie Page reviews:

Chris ****1/2
Jennie Kermode ***1/2

Director: Mary Harron

Writer: Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner

Starring: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Sarah Paulson, Cara Seymour, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor

Year: 2005

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: USA


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