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.
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.)