By Michael Scasserra
“The Notorious Bettie Page” documents the heyday of the 1950s most enduring pin-up queen, the all-American gal who began posing for camera clubs, turned bondage into suburban parlor play, became the subject of Congressional hearings and was rediscovered three decades later as a pop icon of the highest order.
By today’s standards, Page’s kitten-with-a-whip act looks downright wholesome. (Madonna went farther than this twenty years ago and on television.) So why has Page’s shapely form translated so effectively from the nudie magazines and dirty book stores of the 1950s to the coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets of today? The answer seems to lie in her particular approach to smut: she always looked happy, seemed in control of her own image, never went full-frontal and there was never a man in the frame. “What was dangerous and disturbing in the 1950s is not so dangerous now,” says director Mary Harron (“I Shot Any Warhol,” “American Psycho”), whose “Notorious” new film puts Page in the context of that era when sex was still discussed in hushed tones yet was bursting at the seams of America’s pop culture.
“If Bettie hadn’t been a pin-up queen, she would have been a typist or a secretary, but what she really wanted was to be an actress. Posing was a way to pay the rent, but it took over her life,” says Harron, who contrasts Page to another 1950s icon, Marilyn Monroe. “Marilyn had that driving ambition to be a movie star and would sleep with someone to get a job, but it seems that it just wasn’t that important to Bettie. She didn’t see herself in a big arena but she did have an overwhelming desire to be looked at. She accepted the values of her time in that she felt her proper destiny was to settle down with a husband and kids, but she was also a free spirit, a natural Bohemian. Her photos reflect that spirit. She’s like Betty Crocker coming out with a tray of cookies, yet she’s posing with a whip.”
Working from a screenplay co-written with Guinevere Turner (“Go Fish”), Harron’s biopic utilizes the cinematic vocabulary of the 1950s to document the rise and fall of this Christian country girl from Tennessee who became the object of fetishes she didn’t even fully understand. The movie’s uncanny recreation of the era moves from gritty, authentic looking black-and-white (some shot on hand-cranked 16mm) to gorgeous, saturated color (primarily when the action moves from New York City to Miami). This is one of those few occasions when the combination of color and black-and-white makes perfect sense and rarely have we seen a better match of new and stock footage, courtesy of cinematographer Mott Hupfel, who here fulfills the promise of his ingenious cinematography for 2001’s “The American Astronaut.” The fashion, hair, and make-up of the period are impeccably recreated, and the entire affair unfolds to a nifty soundtrack that includes vintage recordings by Patsy Cline, Peggy Lee, and Artie Shaw.
But all that texture wouldn’t amount to much without Mol’s sexy, subtle performance. “We looked at every actress with black hair, anyone who looked even remotely like Bettie and the problem was that they all came in sexy,” Harron recalls. “Gretchen was not on anyone’s list. She came in wearing a simple shirt and pants, and she had the sweetness. Gretchen wasn’t acting sexy she was acting the joy in posing. I think she knew instinctively what Bettie was about the delight in showing herself off, the delight in posing, the delight in her own body.”
On screen, Mol looks like Page, poses like Page, is every inch a sex goddess yet the power of her performance is in her searching eyes, her smiles, her quiet expressions and offhanded shrugs. There’s never a moment of fuss or self-consciousness in her portrayal even when she asks a photographer to remove a ball-gag from her mouth, just so she can remind him that she believes in Jesus. Naked or not, Mol is a dream in black-and-white and even more sumptuous in color. Near the conclusion of the film, at the moment Bettie takes communion and become a born-again Christian, Harron moves in for a rapturous, Technicolor close-up and Mol holds the shot like a vintage Hollywood star. “The Notorious Bettie Page” is Mol’s movie from topless to bottomless. (Look out, Reese there’s a new girl in town.)
In the years after she stopped posing, Page went into seclusion, became a missionary, had a mental meltdown but Harron wraps things up way before then. “Anyone’s life story can be a comedy or a tragedy, depending on where you end it,” she says. “I’m not trying to give a final answer about who Bettie was, because I don’t think there is one. I think the truth about Bettie lies in her contradictions.”
“The Notorious Bettie Page” opens on April 14 in limited release (official site).