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8 reviews, 16 user ratings

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Notorious Bettie Page, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Speaking of kinky boots . . ."
4 stars

When you look at one of the old photos of 1950's fetish-model-turned-feminist-icon Bettie Page, the thing that strikes you immediately is not the often outlandish bondage attire that she has been strapped into (leather corsets, dangerously high heels and the occasional cat-o-nine-tails) or even the kind of healthy curves that would be all but unthinkable in the modeling world today. No, what grabs you is the look of good cheer on her face. Other glamour models of the day had kind of a hard-bitten aura to them–they looked like hard women who had hard lives and who were only interested in making a quick buck or two. Page, on the other hand, almost always had a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, no matter how lurid the outfit or pose–she looked as if she was having fun showing her body and she didn’t care about the money or what disapproving people might think.

Therefore, anyone daring to play Bettie Page in a movie has to be able to convey that sense of cheerfulness and ease with her body–without that happy attitude, you have nothing but just another babe in kinky clothes. In “The Notorious Bettie Page,” Gretchen Mol, an actress previously best known for an infamous 1998 “Vanity Fair” cover story that prematurely anointed her Hollywood’s next big thing, portrays Bettie and nails that attitude so perfectly that it feels at times as if one of those old photographs has suddenly come to vibrant life. Maybe the fall-out from that article, not to mention the cover photo that, based on the evidence, must have been shot in a very chilly room, allowed her to tap into the feelings of someone else who found herself judged and appraised by people based on little more than a few photos. Whatever the reason, it is a great performance and even though the surrounding film is kind of a muddle, she brings such vitality to the proceedings that you can’t take your eyes off of her no matter what she is (or isn’t) wearing.

Part of the problem with the film is that Page herself has always been sort of an enigma. When she left the glamour industry, partly because of increasingly repressive government crackdowns and partly out of a desire to rededicate her life to religious pursuits, she essentially disappeared off the face of the planet–so much so that it was long assumed that she was dead. When she was rediscovered in the 1980's–another conservative era in which sexual expression was frowned upon–she never seemed ashamed or embarrassed about her former work but she generally refused to talk to anyone about it on any level. Books and magazine articles appeared discussing her and her significance as a sexual icon but without any direct contribution, they merely added to her mystique without adding anything tangible. As a result, anyone trying to deal with the subject of Bettie Page as a person is forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves in order to figure out what they want to say about her.

In the early scenes of most biopics, we are usually treated to key formative moments in the lives of their subjects with the idea being that they will somehow explain their later behavior for us later on. Here, director Mary Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner introduce such elements–an abusive home life, a horrifying sexual assault, a grim early marriage–only to then more or less dismiss them as quickly as they appear. At first, this is interesting for the way that it firmly breaks with the traditions of the biopic genre and signals that Harron and Turner may have found a way to approach their subject with a new and intriguing manner. After a while, though, it becomes evident that they don’t really seem to have much to say at all about Bettie Page and what she represented both in the 1950's and today. Although the film deals with censorship and government intrusion into sexual matters–the frame of the film is a Senate committee looking into the smut racket headed by Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn)–these weightier matters never really seem to have anything to do with their central character. After a while, Harron and Turner’s unwillingness to even attempt to get under the skin of their subject becomes somewhat maddening–why make a film on Page in the first place if you aren’t going to really come to terms with her as anything other than a pretty girl who dared to take off her clothes without feeling ashamed about it?

And yet, while the film is curiously unsatisfying as a whole, I found myself enjoying plenty of the individual elements. As someone who has always had a keen fascination for old-time exploitation films, I enjoyed the depiction of Bettie’s work with the brother-and-sister team of Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor) as they go about creating their then-lurid/now-goofy bondage loops with an amusingly matter-of-fact approach. The visual style of the film is also quite striking–cinematographer Mott Hupfel does an extraordinary job of recreating the look and feel of the period as captured by Bettie’s photos and films (both in black-and-white and color) without ever calling too much attention to itself. Also, at a time where you are more likely to see a body dismembered than disrobed on a movie screen, the casual and carefree display of nudity and sexually-oriented material comes as a welcome relief.

However, the thing that really makes “The Notorious Bettie Page” shine to the point where I can kind of recommend it in spite of its serious flaws (especially to those who already have a pronounced interest in the subject matter) is, as I mentioned before, the amazing work from Gretchen Mol in the title role. When it was announced that she was going to play her, I admit that I couldn’t really see her in the part–I always figured that Liv Tyler, who had been mentioned for the role a few years ago, was the perfect choice just from a physical standpoint–but I found myself eating my words within a few minutes. This isn’t just a modeling job, it is a full-out performance and Mol is so strong that even when the film itself starts going off the rails (especially in the clunky final scenes), she keeps it going through sheer force of will alone.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12826&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/21/06 03:48:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/06/08 Will Excellent 5 stars
8/09/07 John Aster Habig Great Bio Film I've always fantasized about BP but now she seems more human 4 stars
7/28/07 Charles Tatum The E True Hollywood Story was more informative 3 stars
4/17/07 David Pollastrini Gretchen Mol looked hot in this! 2 stars
1/10/07 Jeff Anderson Terrifically authentic & refreshingly sweet biopic. Mol is a stunning marvel as Bettie Page 5 stars
11/09/06 AnnieG Well-acted. Not much plot, but an enjoyable movie. 4 stars
10/15/06 Phil M. Aficionado Nothing special. Not bad but pretty shallow and cliched 3 stars
10/10/06 E.G. Great film 5 stars
10/10/06 bill C FANTASTIC! 5 stars
5/28/06 jcjs simply wonderful 5 stars
5/19/06 San Lamar sweet 5 stars
4/23/06 J. Silva Great, Sweet, Fun movie 5 stars
4/12/06 San Lamar A MUST SEE! 5 stars
9/28/05 E. Northam A strangely flat, unerotic film of a fascinating subject's naivete of kinky sexuality. 3 stars
9/16/05 bankrbear Wonderful cinematography, great performances 4 stars
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  14-Apr-2006 (R)
  DVD: 26-Sep-2006



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