(2005)3Nathan SouthernTwo fascinating ironies lie at the core of bondage queen Bettie Page's life, which Mary Harron explores to varying degrees (and with corresponding levels of success) in her film The Notorious Bettie Page. The first involves the fact that this model began life by enduring tumultuous and shattering early years -- so shattering that they made her career as a pinup queen something of a vacation. If this movie is to be believed, Page experienced: sexual abuse as a child, an abusive marriage, and a gang-rape in the back of a car by five or six young men, into which she was tricked by being propositioned for a casual date with a stranger. When Bettie gravitates toward nude modeling and light bondage photography, then, it hardly seems a traumatic experience given all that has come before.
As well as she is treated by Irving Klaw and sister Paula, and later by photographer Bunny Yeager (three of the most affable characters in the film), one cannot blame Bettie for posing. Harron is using as a springboard the viewer's prejudicial assumption that nude modeling would be a demeaning and objectifying experience (the model as the photographer's object of seduction) and gradually defacing this assumption in Bettie's case. By creating tonally empathetic, kind, and considerate characters in the Klaws, their hired photographers, and Yeager, Harron is able to wisely draw a contrast between Bettie's torrid pre-modeling victimization and the easy-as-baby-food photo shoot experiences. And yet, even though Harron climbs inside of this irony, she doesn't go far enough; she remains so intent on retaining a light, gleefully amusing and inoffensive tone from one end of the picture to another that it causes her to gloss over the nastiness of Bettie's early years. This is one film that could benefit, dramatically, from the gutsy decision to become crasser and more graphic, to make palpable for the audience the grimy filth and humiliation of Bettie's molestation, spousal abuse, and sexual assault, thus drawing an even more vivid contrast between these events and the modeling.
Harron evokes the second irony of Bettie's life story more effectively; it involves the film's revelation of Bettie's almost preadolescent naïveté toward S&M posing. By the film's end, we understand how bondage photography could mean "trying on silly costumes" for Bettie but simultaneously spell death for an innocent young man (as a father's testimony in one of the final court scenes reveals). On this level, the film benefits from a surprisingly apolitical and even-handed treatment of the Estes Kefauver-led senatorial "crackdown on smut." In the aforementioned court sequence, Harron explores the logic behind Senator Kefauver's crusade (the film brings the audience to its knees with the paternal confession), and the director courageously resists trashing Kefauver. Harron's treatment of Bettie's conversion to Christianity is similarly respectful (if clichéd). Unfortunately, the film suffers from a lack of a strong character arc throughout -- which is why Bettie's turn away from posing, at the end of the picture, retains such dramatic force; the omission of a better-defined transition throughout Bettie's life significantly drains the picture of dramatic power and momentum. Such is the film's greatest weakness.
As for its strengths, Harron and lead Gretchen Mol somehow convey Page's innocence so thoroughly that the film's recreations of the Bunny Yeager nude stills come across as unadulterated celebrations of the female body -- so pure and unfettered that we feel like an angel has disrobed before us, and find ourselves subconsciously overlooking Bettie's birthday suit. It is a mystifying accomplishment. (How did the filmmakers pull this off?) Equally admirable is cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III's ability to somehow capture the look (in movie form) of old black-and-white '50s photographs and (in the film's Miami sequences) early Kodachrome snapshots, with their heightened primary colors. Overall, Harron has created an interesting, if flawed, work, and a worthy addition to the overlooked cinematic canon of obscure period biopics -- much as she did with her debut, 1996's I Shot Andy Warhol. But, in the final analysis, the film feels vapid and empty, like a hand reaching for something elusive and grasping only air.
Celebrated and vilified in equal measure, the pinup goddess Bettie Page inspired a legion of followers -- and an indecency scandal -- by appearing in a series of nude, sado-masochistic, and/or revealing magazine spreads in the 1950s. An era later, writer/director Mary Harron casts a knowing eye upon the woman who indirectly gave birth to modern pornography in the biopic The Notorious Bettie Page. As a teen, Page (Gretchen Mol) is a smart, plucky girl with ambitions beyond her Tennessee roots. Suffering varying degrees of abuse from her father, her first husband, and suitors of dubious virtue, Page makes her way to New York City, where an amateur photographer discovers her lounging on the beach. It isn't long before images of the shapely brunette reach Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor), brother-and-sister entrepreneurs who publish illicit magazines dedicated primarily to men's fetishes. The casual nudist Page eventually finds herself acquiescing to their requests to don thigh-high boots, whips, and chains, which raise the ire of the smut-fearing senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn). The Notorious Bettie Page had its North American premiere at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.