Mary Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page is a curious biopic from 2005 starring Gretchen Mol as the famous 50s pin-up model who became one of America’s first sex icons. It dramatizes Page’s early life in Nashville and her career in New York as an actress and model, which ended with the triple whammy of an FBI investigation, a Senate hearing (after a young man apparently died during a session of bondage which was rumored to be inspired by bondage images featuring Page) and a religious conversion.
Much of the film (perhaps too much) examines Page’s rise within the modelling world of the 1950s. After moving to New York she is discovered on the beach at Coney Island by photographer Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll), and before long she becomes a popular model with a group of amateur ‘naturalist’ photographers. Her willingness to undress and pose in lingerie and bondage wear eventually leads her to Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor), a couple who run a legitimate movie memorabilia business but also deal in mail order fetish magazines and short films. Despite working in a more exploitative world Bettie remains innocently unaware of the sexual nature of the clothes she is asked to wear, and soon becomes a famous star among bondage aficionados.
Harron chooses to concentrate on Page’s modelling career and her struggles to make it as an actress, and though this is a very interesting part of her life, the film’s reliance upon it feels like a mistake: it is repetitive with far too many scenes depicting Page’s assignments posing for a variety of photographers. Her journey from innocent lingerie model to innocent nude model to innocent bondage model makes for an interesting story but, by way of contrast, Bettie’s troubled early life as a devout Christian in Nashville is largely dealt with by the film’s fifteenth minute. That’s less than a quarter of an hour to take in the divorce of her parents, her alleged sexual abuse as a 13-year-old at the hands of her father, her own marriage and subsequent divorce and a terrible gang rape incident.
While there would admittedly be a danger of wallowing too much in the suffering endured by Page as a teenage girl and young woman (particularly given that the film was released while she was still alive), the events above are clearly of such magnitude that they will surely have shaped her later life to some extent and, presumably, some of her career choices; they deserve more thorough exploration than can be afforded by less than fifteen minutes of cinema. Her marriage to and subsequent divorce from Billy Neal (Norman Reedus) is dealt with in a short montage that culminates in Neal slapping Page and Page leaving. There’s little dialogue, and little information given about the marriage (in fact about the same amount of screen time is given to a scene where they meet for the first time). Though only one incident of domestic abuse is shown the implication in the film is that it happened on more than one occasion; to make the decision to include these terrible events and to then largely skirt over them gives an impression very early on of a very anemic lightweight film, and there’s little in the subsequent 75 minutes to dispel that.
It is shot largely in black and white, but clunkily introduces some scenes in colour to indicate time moving on and film replacing photography as the preferred medium for soft porn enthusiasts. Some scenes of Page visiting a ‘happy place’ are also shot in colour (primarily those set in Florida, which is where she eventually undertakes her re-conversion to religion), in stark contrast to the monochrome New York scenes. These dalliances with colour are awkward, sometimes puzzling and ultimately unnecessary, as black and white seems to be the perfect fit for the film. This depiction of Florida as bright and enriching and New York as dark and destroying is heavy handed and ultimately way too simplistic. It is interesting to compare the commitment of The Notorious Bettie Page to black and white with another superbly-lit black and white film dealing with the same period that was also released in 2005: George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck. (Incidentally, both films star David Strathairn; here he plays Senator Estes Kefauver, chair of the Senate committee investigating the effects of pornography on American youth.)
The black and white scenes of Harron’s film are lit beautifully throughout, and the occasional (but too brief) establishing shots of bright-lights-big-city New York nod to the dreamy abstractions of William Klein’s Broadway By Light. Despite such familiarity with the city it looks fantastic here, which makes the decision to switch to colour all the more baffling.
Mol delivers a strong performance as Page, even though there is no deep, thorough examination of the character’s demons, as the script steadfastly sticks to modelling scene after modelling scene. Instead the character remains sweetly innocent and charming throughout, seemingly unaffected by New York or the increasing seediness of the industry she works in. We only ever see the occasional glint in her eye or some slight surprise when confronted by stalker-types. There are hints toward the kind of levels of resolve you might expect someone to have that has suffered so greatly in early life, but the film struggles to make time to address this in any great depth. In fact, that’s the problem at the core of The Notorious Bettie Page: it never gets to grips with its principle character, flimsily and all-too-easily depicting her as a simple innocent, and she seems to have wandered in from another film that is actually deliberately spoofing the 1950s. There’s little darkness from the supporting cast either, though all deliver passable performances; Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor even bring some unrequired humour to their scenes as Irving and Paula Klaw, which just adds to the film’s muddled tone.
The real life Bettie Page died three years after the film was released and has subsequently been listed by Forbes as one of the top-earning dead celebrities (tied – no pun intended – with George Harrison and Andy Warhol at number 13). She led an extremely interesting life, with a tough beginning and a tough end, but ultimately she became a very successful model and her look is still influencing many in the entertainment industry today. She married again in 1958, was divorced by 1963, and then attempted to work as a missionary in Africa (unsuccessfully). She went on to work for the Rev. Billy Graham, and briefly remarried her first husband Billy Neal, but the two divorced for a second time shortly thereafter. She married for a fourth time in 1967, but was divorced by 1972. In the late 1970s, while living in California she had a nervous breakdown, attacked her landlady, and was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia. She spent 20 months in a state mental hospital. After another incident, where she attacked another landlord, she was placed under state supervision for eight years, and was eventually released in 1992. In her later years she managed to hire a law firm to recoup some of the profits being made with her likeness, and reversed her financial fortunes somewhat.
Unfortunately this film does not touch on any of Page’s life after her religious conversion in Florida. Ultimately you have to respect the decision of the filmmaker to concentrate on a certain period of the model’s life, and the subject matter and period is admittedly interesting, but it only serves to make the film seem incomplete, rushed and underdeveloped. There is excellent attention to period detail, but more attention to the main character would have been preferable. It is half-nostalgic for a simpler, safer, softer porn industry, and although it looks great at times, The Notorious Bettie Page is sadly an unrewarding biopic-by-numbers that could and should have been far more demanding of its audience.
Directed by: Mary Harron
Written by: Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner
Starring: Gretchen Mol, Chris Bauer, Jared Harris, Lili Taylor
Running Time: 91 minutes