Title: The Notorious Bettie Page
Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Mary Harron
Screenwriters: Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner
Starring: Gretchen Mol, Lili Taylor, Chris Bauer
The Notorious Bettie Page herself is an inspirational figure, though in few of the ways that Hollywood biopics typically venture. Mary Harron’s film hesitates to brand her a trailblazer or a hero; indeed, we get the distinct impression that the 1950’s pin-up industry, bondage photos and all, would have gotten on just fine without its “queen.” What makes Bettie (Gretchen Mol) so heartbreakingly terrific isn’t her principles, nor her impact or influence. It’s her blithe, wide-eyed failure to, depending on your interpretation, either acknowledge or recognize socially imposed taboos, and her refusal to ascribe evil motives to those who would break them.
In this sense, and with full awareness of the conventions of the biopic, the movie plays with our expectations. Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner (who also wrote Harron’s American Psycho and — what the hell? — Uwe Boll’s BloodRayne) tell the story in flashback, with Congressional hearings on the dangers of pornography serving as present day (1955), complete with David Strathairn as Senator Estes Kefauver. But the expected pay-off — presumably, Bettie taking a courageous stand in favor of free expression and sexual liberation in front of a hostile panel of crusty Congressmen — never arrives. The pay-off that does come instead focuses on Bettie herself rather than on political grandstanding. It’s moving — partially because it’s surprising, but partially on the merits, too.
Harron and Turner undercut genre archetypes several more times, not least in their sharp, mocking destruction of the self-consciously adorable romanticism that usually pervades these quasi-historical productions. We see Bettie sitting beatifically on a park bench, buried in a book; she catches the eye of a guy, who’s told by his buddy that forget it, every guy wants to date Bettie Page. Not to be discouraged, he strikes up a conversation; upon walking away, he announces with plucky determination: “I’m gonna marry that girl.”
And yes, within minutes he does, only to have the marriage immediately dissolve into neglect and abuse in a solemn montage. The feeling is that the writers aren’t mourning the loss so much as sneering at our naivete for believing that the sentence “I’m gonna marry that girl,” delivered unequivocally after a two-minute conversation, precedes a lifetime of happiness.
But Bettie perseveres, of course, pursuing her modeling career with a wonderful obliviousness to edging toward the fringe: first with full nudity, then shoe fetishism, then bondage. The notion that these latter two are somehow “perversions,” that there is something “wrong” with the men who seek the images out, doesn’t occur to her — and doesn’t enter the film until being abruptly introduced by a supporting character to Bettie’s bewilderment. When, later, she is mocked for her notoriety, she is again surprised, and this time hurt.
Our acceptance of this makes possible the conclusion, which asks us to accept an explicit contradiction in terms. And so we do: the undeniability of the true story aside, Bettie Page is sufficiently extraordinary that I bought the otherwise improbable final scenes with little hesitation. If there’s a problem, in fact, it’s the film’s overeagerness to drive home the improbability with a dramatic pronouncement of the kind it had theretofore successfully avoided. By that time, though, I was sold — on Bettie and, by extension, the film.