The Notorious Bettie Page
Mirror Film Critic
Growing up in the ‘80s meant that you were most likely going to encounter women who loved Marilyn and boys who loved Bettie Page, the 1950’s pin-up goddess of the universe. Only a certain type of guy admired the voluptuous beauty, and they were usually driving a retro car, sporting many tats and had inky black hair off their pale forehead. Liking Bettie Page meant you were cool.
Mary Harron’s insightful and delicious new film, The Notorious Bettie Page is a penetrating look at the walking contradiction that was this reigning pin-up queen, a woman who was able to show off her body with abandon that didn’t spring from a desperate need to love so much as a comfort inside her own skin.
The Notorious Bettie Page begins in the retro world of a small town girl from Tennessee, pretty as can be, making her way through failed marriages and finally into modeling. Soon, though, her poses became more and more risqué and it wasn’t long before she was taking her top off and posing completely nude. And soon thereafter, posing in bondage with high heels and whips.
The film’s only real conflict comes from the battle waged with the porn industry on what was indecent (we all know by now that porn has basically won). It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking the tame stuff Page did on camera as particularly shocking, especially compared with what you see on any random Google search.
Would that the sexual ideal these days were more like the full-figured Page and less like hairless balloon dolls dominating porn these days.
The film doesn’t make us feel bad for Page; she wasn’t a victim except perhaps in the way that she shirked her academic goals to make a living on her looks. She was no dummy, though, and there must have been a kind of freedom in what she did. That is, until it began to bother her. Unlike Marilyn, her fame didn’t destroy her. She wasn’t torn apart by men who rejected her, though she did ultimately turn her back on “modeling” after finding Jesus Christ. Page became a born again Christian and “reformed.”
Page, about whom not much is known, disappeared from public view for decades and has only recently emerged for interviews and to, perhaps, make some money off her image for a change. At the ripe old age of 83, she lives quietly and privately somewhere no one can find her.
To that end, Bettie Page is a spiritual coming-of-age. It is the story of a woman finding the thing she believes in most after exploring the full spectrum of the human experience. Once she finds God she finds contentment without also feeling ashamed at having taken her clothes off for money.
The film doesn’t address her stays in mental hospitals, and only touches lightly on the potential trauma she suffered as a young girl: a possible molestation and being sent to an orphanage by her mother after her father abandoned them.
Harron got the most important thing right with her film, though, by casting Gretchen Mol as Page. Mol is frighteningly similar in body type and facial expressions to Page – a girl-next-door with a good-natured disposition that makes even the most kinky activities seem like harmless fun. Mol lives up to her early “it girl” promise here.
With her Marilyn-like heart-shaped face, porcelain skin and hourglass figure Mol has always looked like she stepped out of the 1950s, or even earlier. She doesn’t fit in with the stars of today, and was once proclaimed to be the “next big thing.” While she didn’t quite “perform” as expected, she morphs into Bettie Page with unexpected vigor – a transformation that didn’t rely too much on cheap tricks of makeup and excessive weight gain. Mol does it more from the inside out, which will work magic for her A-list status.
Harron is wracking up an impressive body of work, including I Shot Andy Warhol and the wickedly funny deconstruction of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. With The Notorious Bettie Page, she delivers probably her most accomplished film to date. More than that, though, the film shows a director and an actress who are just beginning to find out their true potential.