Notorious Bettie Page, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/21/06 20:00:40
“The Notorious Bettie Page” could have been just another period biopic. It is, instead, something much more: it is the biography of the idea of the pin-up beauty, a woman who has become myth. Her story is here, but it’s curiously lacking in details, barely skimming over key moments of the model’s life, understanding that they only serve as a springboard to take the subject from Bettie Page the human being to Bettie Page the icon. This is the story of that icon.By doing so, the film - directed by Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”) and written by Harron and Guinevere Turner (“Bloodrayne,” “Go Fish”); the two had previously collaborated on “American Psycho” - elevates itself into something far more effective than it ever could have on a more traditional route. This is a movie less about biography and more about mythology, a portrait of a legend as seen through the haze of such status.
Watch how Harron and Turner play out the facts. We get one short, barely-there scene revealing that in her youth, Page may have been molested by her father (it is only slightly suggested, enough for us to get it but not so much that the movie shows its hand). Page’s marriage to an abusive husband gets a quick introduction, a few silent shots of him slapping her around, and one last shot of her leaving; we never learn anything else at all about the husband as a person. Both moments, vital in the creation of this woman’s persona later in life, here are seen as nothing but sketches, the cinematic equivalent of one Page fan telling another that “I think I heard somewhere that she was abused back in Tennessee” before moving on to other things.
Indeed, it is enough to lay the groundwork of an underlying notion (that Page, like many others, used her sexuality as a weapon of sorts, allowing it to empower her as an adult when it could not do so as a teen), but the script then backs off. It is not here to psychoanalyze Page and her actions - it lets the audience do that themselves, and only if they wish.
Now compare those brief, highlighted, bullet point scenes to the scenes of Page posing for the camera - any camera. We see her in her teens playfully posing for a friend, and later, when she first moves to New York, posing for a stranger on the beach. Both scenes are given much more attention than the moments of otherwise-essential biography. It’s as if the movie is telling us that this, not the basic facts of Page’s life, is what’s important here, that this is what made her who she is. We see her stunning natural talent for the camera, and we learn that Page was a woman destined to be a photograph. (Even a subplot involving Page’s hopes of becoming an actress point to this: she is a fine actor, sure, but she’s meant for silent posing.)
This is not to say the movie objectifies, or even simplifies, Bettie Page. On the contrary, it celebrates her and her hypnotic photographic charms. For generations, Page has been a cult icon seen but rarely heard; we have images of her but no real person to match. “The Notorious Bettie Page” takes this into consideration, which brings us, finally, to Gretchen Mol.
Watching Mol in action in the title role, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. The actress, finally receiving the high-profile role she deserves, is radiant, effortlessly channeling the beauty, innocence, and charisma of her character. It’s not just that Mol looks remarkably like the model, it’s that she captures the same spellbinding aura. Watching Mol recreate Page’s most (in)famous poses and 16mm bondage films, it becomes impossible to take your eyes off her. She is not just Bettie Page in image, she’s Bettie Page in captivating attitude; through her, we recognize the power Page had in front of the camera.
Yet it is not a performance limited to posing and imitation. Mol fills in what the script does not, in that she makes Page a real live human being, one removed from the legend. It’s a delicate but effective combination, this screenplay that handles the myth and this performance that delivers the reality, and it works wonders. When Mol’s Page discusses how she sees no sin in her work, we fully understand what she says and why she says it.
At Mol’s side is a dizzying line-up of powerhouse talent, most notably Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor as Irving and Paula Klaw, who ran the photography studio that put together products for a more demanding clientele. Their story is just as fascinating as Page’s - they become the subject of a pornography investigation led by Senator Estes Kevaufer (David Strathairn) - and their explanation of this underground erotica is wonderful in its simplicity. What we see here is a close family (also containing Jared Harris as a fetishist photographer and Cara Seymour as a fellow model) that treats the on-camera goings-on as just another job. They believe deeply in what they do, but they are merely workaday folks, not crusaders for a greater cause. When the Klaws are called to Washington to testify, Irving fails to comprehend the problem; after all, the front page of the local paper had a picture of a Shakespeare play featuring whips, and that’s considered culture, so why pick on this stuff?
And yet Harron and Turner refuse to use Page’s story to make big political statements. Sen. Kevaufer is not treated like a buffoon or a villain; the Klaws are not treated as heroes; nobody is taken to cartoonish extremes. The Senate hearings are not even the highlight of the tale - it is instead a framework on which to hang several flashbacks and set up the social mores of the era. A lesser film would have tossed in a few big speeches, maybe a comeuppance or two. “The Notorious Bettie Page” will have none of that nonsense. It wants instead to focus on the command this woman had over so many. Any statements the viewer finds here is the result of the viewer’s own making.
Throughout all of this, the movie that kept coming to mind was Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” Not just for the same gimmick of filming in black-and-white and the mind-boggling feat of meticulously recreating legendary visuals, but for the sheer celebration and optimism regarding the title characters. Like Wood in that film, Page is at the center of a risqué subculture who understands themselves when others do not. Both films have a sweetness about the way they treat their myths that makes their stories something better.
I mentioned black-and-white photography. The other star of this picture is cinematographer Mott Hupfel (“The American Astronaut”), who provides crisp, gorgeous imagery to the project, allowing the whole thing to seem more like a lovely memory than a mere biography. And then the film explodes into beautiful retro Technicolor for a few important moments, allowing the film to convey an almost perfect sense of the 1950s as we remember it, if not as it actually was. Hupfel’s work here is among the finest in recent memory.The playfulness with color, meanwhile, shows just how much Harron can do with this story as cinema. Not content with making just another biography, she strives for much more and hits the mark. Page’s life is a puzzle that Harron loves to ponder but refuses to solve, and as such, “The Notorious Bettie Page” becomes a grand exercise in icon study and a remarkable tribute to a legend.
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