Notorious Bettie Page, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/19/06 10:44:41
(Worth A Look)
Up until a few years ago, I didn't realize Bettie Page was a real person. I'd seen Bettie Page comic books, action figures, and other assorted merchandise; even when I saw a photograph of her, I thought it was just some random model portraying the Bettie Page character. So this film about her is interesting to me, as it makes this brand name that has persisted for decades beyond her heyday far more human while still allowing the audience to assign what qualities to her that they see fit - much like they did during her career.Bettie Page was a pin-up model in the 1950s. Born to a conservative Nashville family, she moved to New York City for a new start, got noticed by an amateur photographer on a local beach, and quickly made other contacts, eventually working primarily for Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer), whose movie stills business is something of a front for racier things. This eventually leads them be called before Congress as a purveyor of unwholesome material, raising the question of how this sweet southern girl can be a threat to the country's morality.
Gretchen Mol plays Bettie, and her performance captures exactly why Ms. Page endures as an icon fifty years later: There's an innocence and playfulness about her; even when she's told to pout or look fierce, she responds with what is almost a child's imitation of that sort of aggression. She enjoys being in front of a camera; when she talks about how it gives her the same sort of feeling as being in church, it initially seems incongruous, but also sincere. Bettie is a sexual creature - the film suggests she's aware of her heightened libido from an early age - and seems happy to find a way to release that energy without it being socially troublesome.
At least, that's the impression the film gives. As much as director Mary Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner seem to take pains to keep Bettie herself something of a blank slate, they're very carefully manipulating what we see. Take Bettie's relationships with men, or, more accurately, her lack thereof. After spending a few minutes setting up Bettie's first marriage, it's over shockingly fast - her husband Billy (Norman Reedus) slaps her and we cut to Bettie walking out the door with a suitcase. When we see her in New York and Miami, she spends time with a couple of guys (one in each city, apparently), but there's no indication of any romance. Are we meant to believe that Bettie deliberately minimized the importance of men in her life after her first marriage, or do the filmmakers have an agenda?
The director, writers, editor, and four of five producers (the exception being an executive producer) are all women; in and of itself, it's logical that a film about a woman's life would have a predominately female production team. One can't help but notice that most of the male photographers she works with are either frightened of her open sexuality or more than a bit creepy, while Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor) and Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) are treated as artists - in Paula's case, an artist shackled to her cynical brother's business, but the emphasis is clear: Female sexuality is a thing of beauty and worthy of celebration, but only women can appreciated it. Men will try to beat it down, exploit it commercially, try to ban it, or feel threatened. That's an interesting thesis and worth thinking about. The only real trouble with it is that is makes for an awkward ending; the next part of Bettie Page's life didn't really fit that theme, and while we've had Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) presiding over anti-smut hearings since the start, but the words coming out of Bettie's mouth toward the end don't exactly match what the film would tell you her life was about.
Ah, well. Not many people have lives that work as metaphors from beginning to end.
If the film makes the occasionally odd choice in which parts of its subject's life to present and emphasize (and that's a big if), how it chooses to present it on-screen is rock solid. Harron and cinematographer Mott Hupfel shoot most of the film in black and white, emphasizing how crisp, sharp, and straightforward the people of the time sought to be. It's a great, slick look until Bettie goes to Miami and the screen explodes into super-saturated color. As nice as the monochrome looks, it's very cold and precise compared to the color, which may be coarse and grainy but doesn't feel like it's holding back. That it's also very faithful to how black and white versus technicolor looked on-screen at the time is a bonus. The music is authentic, too, as are techniques like the moving magazine cover . The short bondage films Klaw shoots with Bettie are presented as silly pantomimes that can't possibly be damaging. There's an occasional bit of what appears to be noticeable CGI or matting, but by and large, this is a very spiffy-looking movie.
The performances are a bit theatrical, but that matches the period as well; if this movie were made in the fifties, it would feel very much like this (except, of course, for the nudity). Gretchen Mol disappears inside Bettie in more ways than just the signature haircut; she comes up with the mouse-like voice that stays sweet even as the character works to lose her accent. Her Bettie walks the line between between naive and just not being interested in what society tells her almost perfectly. She's not defensive like Lili Taylor's Paula, who reacts to disdain like she's about to be slapped. Chris Bauer makes Irving Klaw sort of absently scuzzy, not thinking what he does is art like his sister or ready to defend it, but still not thinking that his under-the-counter work is different enough from his Hollywood still business to be worth targeting. Strathairn is solemn, able to be condescending and holier-than-thou without giving the audience obvious snottiness to hang it on. Sarah Paulson is a bit flat as Bunny Yeager; she doesn't have much to do, though, other than be a somewhat well-known person whose life intersected with Page's.It's a good movie, albeit one pulled in slightly different directions. Bettie Page isn't quite the icon the filmmakers want her to be, but she's an interesting subject nonetheless.
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