The Notorious Bettie Page

Before Anna Nicole Smith or Carmen Electra or even really Marilyn Monroe, there was Bettie Page, who grew up in a conservative religious family in Tennessee, became a photo model sensation in 1950s New York and became the target of a Senate investigation into pornography courtesy of her legendary fetish poses. Directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol), The Notorious Bettie Page takes a look back at the unlikely woman who blossomed into an erotic icon, and whose iconic status continues to enthrall fans to this day.

Gretchen Mol stars as Page, and there’s a real, lockstep sweetness to both the character and her performance; she’s the best thing about the movie. While shocking to some, Page always regarded her pin-up work — and most famously the bondage, leather and shoe fetish specialties — as a dress-up goof, perhaps because of the lack of men in any of the shoots. Working first with Paula and Irving Klaw (Lili Taylor and Chris Bauer, respectively), and later Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), who would snap her iconic Playboy Christmas-tree cover, Page worked as a model to fund her dream of acting, though an ironic performance nervousness would derail her dreams there.

The Notorious Bettie Page is in many ways as much about women and the general boiling over prurient desires in pre-hardcore America as it is about Page herself. There’s a darker side to Page’s lot later in life — she spent several years in a mental institution for stabbing her landlady in an argument — that isn’t touched on at all here; after a bit of a glimpse of Page’s rough adolescence and its victimization, the film hones in sharply on her years most in the public eye. There’s a kick to many of the fetishistic recreations, and Matt Hupfel’s cinematography — particularly in the washed-out color segments of the ’60s — conveys the playful yet demure nature of the work Page did, especially the giggly pin-up work for girlie mags with innocent names like Wink, Flirt and Titter. Yet the movie feels dramatically inert and, most damningly, psychologically shallow.

One can easily make a convincing case that Page’s sunny disposition is the result of suppressed trauma, but the script — by Harron and American Psycho collaborator Guinevere Turner — doesn’t delve into how and why this drives Page. In directly implying incest and showcasing (albeit non-graphically) a teenage gang rape, the film gives us back story with no attendant follow through, and thus continues Harron’s dubious tradition of muted portraits of fascinating subjects. The Notorious Bettie Page gives us a veneer, brightly lacquered but one-dimensional. (Picturehouse, R, 91 mins.)


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