Whether she knew it or not, Bettie Page was breaking a lot of taboos when she started posing in bondage films and photos (maybe she knew but just decided to not care?). Current trends in modeling, including Dita Von Teese and Suicide Girls, often cite Page as an inspiration for their work. In Von Teese there is a certain comparison, but Suicide Girls, whether they like it or not, are not celebrating taboo. If anything, they are destroying taboo and making everything normal, even the strange and macabre. The trick with Page was that she didn’t really see it as a bad thing; she never had it in her mind to exploit the idea of “the bad girl.” Whether this was on director Mary Harron
’s mind when she opted to take on the life story of Bettie Page is up for debate.
Raised in Tennessee to a strict, religious family and a father with a fondness for bathing suit areas, Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol
) is set to become a teacher at college when she marries an army man and promptly leaves him when he hits her. After being sexually assaulted by a group of men, she makes her way to New York City to become an actress. The moment of fate comes when an off-duty police officer and amateur photog decides to take her picture. Soon enough, she’s being sought out by famous photographers like Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson
) and specialty photography siblings Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer
and Lili Taylor
, respectively). Her friends, mostly male, are astonished by her nonchalant attitude towards nudity and bondage. She just sees it as “silly pictures,” but the Senate, led by Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn
, absolutely wasted), thinks it’s warping the youth of America. Mostly, Bettie just wants to make a nice, God-fearing life for herself with a man who doesn’t judge her. Article continues below
There is a gaping, obvious problem to this film that holds the key to its ingenuity but also to its ultimate failure: There is no plot, no story. The film has no beginning, middle, or end, it just exists in Bettie Page’s life for a brief time. The film is black and white with brief splashes of color, like when Yeager takes nude photos of Page on a Florida beach and a montage of magazine covers. This works, to a certain degree, to highlight the difference of the character that males turned Page into and the person she actually was. The shallowness and distance of the film could be interpreted as Harron using the film as a statement of males' views of women as empty vessels with big smiles. However, if that’s the case, the statement doesn’t pay off in its Scripture-reading coda.
The acting is amiable here, aside from Mol. Mol makes the most out of a mundane script by Harron and Guinevere Turner, with a healthy dollop of southern sassiness and wide-eyed charm. In her first nude shoot, in the forest with a photographer, Mol shows no hesitancy in disrobing; none of the awkward framing that nude scenes tend to have on screen all too often. It’s a moment that shows Mol in the mindset of Page: Just another Eve with nothing but a leaf to cover her privates. The Notorious Bettie Page is not a good movie, but it isn’t exactly devoid of fascination or ingenuity. Perhaps its biggest crime is that it has succeeded at being what Bettie Page never was: forgettable.