With a title like “The Notorious Bettie Page,” you would almost expect Mary Harron‘s biopic on the “Queen of Pinups” to be explicit and shockingly erotic in nature. However, “The Notorious Bettie Page” is a sophisticated, sympathetic reflection of a woman who is misunderstood due to the sexual nature of her work and the film is also a celebration of a woman’s sexual liberation.
Teaming up with writer Guinevere Turner (who worked with her on “American Psycho” (2000)), Harron’s film was released in 2005 to mixed reviews. However nearly fifteen years later, the film still stands up and is worth revisiting. Harron’s film deconstructs the male gaze and also examines how sexual liberation can result in female empowerment. Bettie Page may be a victim of sexual abuse, and exploitation but she never allowed that to be the only aspect of her life to define who she was as a person.
The film opens with an undercover cop entering an adult shop and requesting fetish photos depicting BDSM. It turns out that this is part of a sting operation, resulting in a 1955 hearing, headed by Senator Estes Kefauver, investigating the effects of pornography on American youth. Told in a series of flashbacks, the film follows Bettie Page (an enigmatic Gretchen Mol) an ambitious, naïve, and devout young Christian woman who longs to leave Nashville, Tennessee, following a childhood of sexual abuse, a failed marriage, and gang rape.
Harron doesn’t show us the graphic depiction of the rape, but rather the aftermath of Bettie running through the woods, beaten, disheveled and distraught. Harron’s decision not to show the rape take place on-screen is an interesting one, as it doesn’t exploit the tragic event that took place. Similarly to how the violence towards the female characters in “American Psycho” is never glamourized, Harron focuses on the lasting emotional impact of the rape on Bettie’s mental state and how the event prompted her to leave her home town and ultimately led to her entering the world of pornography.
“The Notorious Bettie Page” is a sophisticated, sympathetic reflection of a woman who is misunderstood due to the sexual nature of her work and a celebration of a woman’s sexual liberation.”
The film follows Bettie to New York City, where she enrolls in an acting class, however, Bettie is never really taken seriously as an actress with her beauty hindering her success. One day amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll) discovers her walking on the beach at Coney Island and she agrees to model for him. He suggests she restyle her hair with the bangs that would become her trademark.
Bettie soon becomes a favorite of photographers and she has no hesitation about removing her clothes for the photographers when asked. Before long images of the shapely brunette reach brother-and-sister entrepreneurs Paula and Irving Klaw (played by Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer), who run a respectable business selling movie stills, but also deal with fetish photos, magazines, and 8- and 16-millimeter films for additional income.
Their top model Maxie (Cara Seymour) takes Bettie under her wing, and she soon finds herself wearing leather corsets and thigh-high boots while wielding whips and chains for photographer John Willie (Jared Harris). Bettie is innocently unaware of the sexual nature of the images that rapidly are making her a star in the underground world of BDSM. In one scene, Bettie attends a social event only to be confronted by a nervous young man who asks her to punish him, however, this isn’t really who Bettie is as a person and he is disappointed becoming slightly abusive towards her.
“Bettie was a woman who embraced her true nature, and Gretchen Mol’s performance helps to capture the real strength and determination that Bettie had.”
Bettie also becomes a muse for Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), and during their brief collaboration, she took over 1,000 pictures of Page and played a role in helping to make Page famous, particularly with her photos in Playboy magazine. Harron shots the scenes with Yeager in colour rather than black and white, which was a conscious decision to provide a sharp contrast between Bettie’s professional life and the escape she ultimately made from it.
Ultimately, Bettie makes the decision to leave the world of pin-up and becomes a born-again Christian. When asked about her past and whether she is ashamed about her previous life, Bettie declares that she isn’t ashamed of anything she has done in her life. In her own words, Adam and Eve were naked in the garden of Eden, so it’s perfectly natural in Bettie’s eyes and as she states, ” I’m not ashamed. Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden, weren’t they? When they sinned, they put on clothes.” We can all take away something from Bettie’s attitude and admire her confidence. She was truly revolutionary, and ahead of her time in a lot of respects.
“We can clearly see the loving attention to detail carried out to recreate the 1950s setting and this is a fascinating glimpse into the world beyond the pin-up poster.”
Bettie was a woman who embraced her true nature, and Gretchen Mol’s performance helps to capture the real strength and determination that Bettie had. Harron said from Mol’s first audition, she was her first choice for the role, stating the following “Emotionally she was so right. She has a natural sort of decorum. So many people made the mistake of being very vampy. At that point, I said, ‘Well, you know, it’s more important to get the inner Bettie than the outer Bettie.'”
“The Notorious Bettie Page” isn’t as racy as people may anticipate it to be, in fact, it feels rather tame especially when we consider the world of pornography today, but the intention of the film was never to be seedy or exploitative. The film’s low budget is obvious, and the film suddenly ends which leaves the viewer feeling a little underwhelmed and feels a little thin in places. Still, we can clearly see the loving attention to detail carried out to recreate the 1950s setting and this is a fascinating glimpse into the world beyond the pin-up poster.