Movie Review: The Notorious Bettie Page
FILM REVIEW: THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE
By Allison Benedikt
Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
Director Mary Harron and the title character she has imagined in "The Notorious Bettie Page" have one thing in common: They accentuate the positive.
Tossing aside the childhood trauma and "E! True Hollywood Story" formula that have imprisoned most biopics of late, Harron and her writing partner, Guinevere Turner, enthusiastically put on their rose-colored glasses (albeit in black and white), crafting a great-looking, ebullient ode to 1950s pinup culture and to the woman at the eye of the industry, that brunet bombshell with the heavy bangs, Bettie Page.
We first meet Bettie as she sits on a bench, looking demure in a tastefully tailored suit, waiting to testify in front of a Senate subcommittee investigating pornography's effect on juveniles. In a bit of casting irony, David Strathairn (a.k.a. Murrow incarnate) plays committee chairman Estes Kefauver, nodding intently as a priest warns that smut is a greater threat to America than Communism. (Maybe he was right. Fifty-some years later, I'm not getting spam about girl-on-girl communal ownership.)
The Senate hearing, which Harron returns to intermittently for historical context, symbolizes all things repressed in an era where conservative values and poodle skirts lived alongside gyrating pelvises and Hollywood sirens. This is Bettie's era, when a poor, churchgoing Southern girl took a chance on the big city, becoming both the decade's most famous pinup girl - appearing barely clad in such sassy magazines as Wink, Whisper and Titter - and an underground sensation with her series of bondage photos and films.
"She's like Betty Crocker coming out with a tray of cookies, and yet she's posing with a whip," Harron has said of Bettie's kinkier photos - pics that seem quaint today. It's a tough balance to maintain - sustaining the wholesome while posing in handcuffs and leather bustier - and actress Gretchen Mol is up to the task, realizing Harron's interpretation of Bettie with an innocent sexuality and love of life. (There's a great moment when Bettie, tied up and gagged, cringes at a friendly photographer's potty mouth.)
Mol, you might remember, appeared on a 1998 Vanity Fair cover, next to the premature coverline: "Is she Hollywood's next `It' girl?" She wasn't. But now, Mol is making a prophet out of Graydon Carter, playing an earlier generation's "It" girl and stealing every scene with that winning smile and peppy derriere.
Harron doesn't completely ignore the dark side - she implies that Bettie was abused by her father and makes clear, without showing it, that Bettie was gang-raped in Nashville - but she certainly doesn't pay much attention to the seedy side of the bondage trade. (I have to believe there was one back then.) Instead, she drops Bettie into a community of sweethearts and caretakers. There are the camera club photographers, a polite bunch who gather in a suburban living room to shoot Bettie, saying "please" and "thank you" when asking the new model to show off her backside; Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and a fantastic Lili Taylor), who snap and sell photos of Bettie for those special private clients who need a little more than cleavage to get their kicks; Bettie's nurturing method acting teacher (Austin Pendleton); her boyfriend, Marvin (Jonathan Woodward), who is appalled when he realizes why men lust over Bettie; and famed cheesecake photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson), who hosts Bettie in Miami, where Harron and her talented cinematographer Mott Hupfel switch from black and white to supersaturated, Technicolor-like brights. Gorgeous.
Choosing the sunny side of life, Harron, who masterfully zeroed in on the 1980s with her stylish, funny, pared-down adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho," does sacrifice depth. Unless Bettie Page was completely vapid - something I very much doubt - we never see her internal conflicts, other than a superficial conversation she has with that foulmouthed photographer about God, who Bettie concludes wants her to pose for kinky pictures because they make people happy.
It's a joy to see so many cheerful and contented characters on screen, especially on a screen that looks this good. No, it's not the definitive account of Bettie Page's life. It's a film that rides mostly on Mol's physical appearance, can-do demeanor and girl-next-door sex appeal, which means that, more than anything else, it does a bang-up job of illuminating why many a contemporary pop icon and, online, a whole new generation of men have taken to Bettie.
But when, in the end as in real life, Bettie steps out of the spotlight, covers up and turns her life over to Jesus, you might wonder why our fun-loving gal felt she needed to be saved.
"The Notorious Bettie Page"
Directed by Mary Harron; written by Harron and Guinevere Turner; photographed by Mott Hupfel; edited by Tricia Cooke; production designed by Gideon Ponte; music by Mark Suozzo; produced by Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel and Christine Vachon. A Picturehouse release; opens Friday, April 21. Running time: 1:34. MPAA rating: R (nudity, sexual content and some language).
Bettie Page - Gretchen Mol
Paula Klaw - Lili Taylor
Irving Klaw - Chris Bauer
Bunny Yeager - Sarah Paulson
Marvin - Jonathan Woodward